Military Insider: Exhibiting Leadership During a Crisis

By Thomas Dorl | July 13, 2018
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US Air Force Thomas Dorl

U.S. Air Force Col. Thomas Dorl, pictured here left, in April 2015. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force

In my previous article, I discussed leadership by the numbers. This part addresses one of the more challenging issues of being a leader, leading during a crisis. Crises come in different forms and have different meanings to different organizations, but I define a crisis as a time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger. As a leader, one of your responsibilities is to effectively lead your people and your organization through any crisis, and return to normal operations.

Of course each organization has its own definitions of a crisis such as failing a major inspection, failing to support operations ahead of a large order or, sadly, experiencing an aircraft mishap. There are two key elements a leader uses when leading through a crisis — the internal and external factors.


Within the first element or part of a crisis there are three internal factors you must deal with during and after the crisis. Imagine these internal factors as concentric rings with the people of the organization in the center, the department where the crisis is centered as the second ring and the organization as the third ring.

Depending on the size and span of the organization, more people may feel the impact of the crisis. For example, if there is an aircraft crash, the local operation and people closely associated with those in the crash will have a different reaction than those at a corporate headquarters. As a leader, you should focus your efforts on those closest to the crisis, ensure their needs are met and offer support to help them cope with the crisis.

The second of the internal factors is the department in which the crisis is occurring. This is the first team that will deal with the crisis. Key steps are to quickly contact the department leader, offer empathy about the crisis and provide that department leader with support and assistance navigating the crisis. A good approach I have used is saying to that department leader, “I work for you during this crisis; how can I serve you?” This is where you as the higher-level leader can shine through by providing them with mentorship, guiding them via your experiences and pointing out potential mistakes going through the crisis.

While I was a commander, I had a unit member pass away. It was difficult to deal with, but with good people inside my unit we were able to cope with the loss and get through the issue. On a subsequent assignment, I was able to use that experience to help a subordinate who experienced a similar event.

I shared what I learned, gathered support agencies and counselors and guided that individual through the coping and adjustment process. Here you can lean on the specific department’s strengths, enact a team approach to address the crisis and involving every department member in order to establish ownership of the crisis. This will help your organization recover more quickly and come out of the crisis stronger.

The third internal factor is the parent organization. After you help the people closely associated with the crisis and their department, turn your attention to the whole organization. Explaining what happened in the crisis and how the parent organization will move forward and recover is important. This can be accomplished via regular updates that contain clear explanations of what happened, steps that were taken to address the issue and what preventative measures you enacted to get back to normal business operations quickly.

While internal factors are important, a leader must also engage key external factors during a crisis. There are three external factors to be aware of and communicate with as the crisis unfolds. They are your customers, suppliers and the media. Each of these factors has unique information requirements and each should be kept apprised of the crisis and remedies you are working on. These external factors can be engaged with all at once or as independent factors.

First, your customers should be quickly informed of the specifics of the crisis — what happened, what your actions are to fix the issue and most importantly, when the time is right and you are able to share, how you will prevent another one from occurring. They will likely want to know what level of risk they are assuming as a result of the crisis. One the most important tasks here is to walk them through the strategy and action plan to return to normal operations and how you and your organization has managed the risk.

Next, your suppliers should be provided the same level of information as your customers, with the following additions. You will also need to communicate how supply rates and accounts receivable will be impacted. Your suppliers are most likely concerned about how your future will impact their bottom line and profit margin. Meet them with honest, regular updates and information on how you can get back to normal and potentially improve from there.

Finally, one of the most challenging external factors to deal with during a crisis is the media and public opinion. Provide updates in person or via press releases and social media postings when information is available and releasable. This is vital to ensuring your organization provides only fact based and data driven information, while avoiding personal opinion. As the crisis moves forward, thinking through what information will be released to the public is important.

I have had the experience of leading large and small organizations through times of crises and have determined there are a few key ways to prepare any organization, regardless of the size. The simple keys to leading in times of crisis are training for them and being ready when it happens. In many military organizations, using quick reaction checklists (QRCs) these step-by-step tasks (like a checklist) are published and common reference items to refer to when things like aircraft mishaps occur, workplace injuries or other crises happen. These QRCs can be on a website, a locally created app or on paper.

A second lesson learned is to conduct crisis exercises with all the key players. Known in the military as table-top exercises (TTXs), these training events gather leaders from operations, maintenance, HR and marketing, and have them walk through a crisis with each leader sharing how their department would respond. These TTXs start with a scenario describing a crisis, say an aircraft mishap, and as the scenario unfolds each leader discusses what actions, decisions are accomplished and areas needed for assistance. This TTX methodology helps to identify immediate actions, gaps in knowledge and where synergies of each sub organization can be realized.

These QRCs and TTXs can easily be brought into the organization’s safety culture and then transitioned to be a part of the company’s overall culture of their operations, while training is a key part of any organization, instilling these lessons into how your organization handles crises will pay off when an actual one occurs.

This article reflects the views of the author, not the U.S. Air Force. Col. Thomas Dorl is a division chief for rescue operations with the Air Force Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

Check out part one of this series.

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