Leading through a Crisis: did Obama pass Crisis Management 101?

By Dr Claudia van den Heuvel

The old cliché is true: in every crisis lies an opportunity, and never more so than for those who display great leadership in difficult times – successful leaders emerge stronger, more trusted and with enhanced reputations. So what makes a successful leader? And did Obama display these crucial qualities when faced with the devastation wrecked by Superstorm Sandy?

Confident Leadership: springing into action

Within a crisis, people look to a leader to be confident, in charge, directive and establish a sense of control. Leaders must be seen to be making immediate, authoritative and directive action to establish that control.

On Sunday, Oct. 28th, with only nine days left of his presidential campaign before election date, Obama suspended his campaign events for the week, choosing to oversee federal relief efforts. He held public events to show Americans he was focused on handling the major natural disaster instead of pressing his quest for a second term. He signed an emergency declaration for New Jersey before the storm actually hit, allowing the state to request federal funding and other assistance, and thereby “cutting through red tape” to help storm victims.

Empathic Leadership: Emotional appeal

Crises are intrinsically emotional events, and it is an appeal to, and justification for, that emotional reaction that people seek from their leader. Empathy, compassion, anger and sadness at the occurrence of the event lie at the heart of any crisis response.

President Obama flew to New Jersey the first day after the storm had subsided and spent the day witnessing the destruction, talking to officials and victims, offering concern, compassion, sympathy and promising help.

Making the most of the media coverage

Having the media on-side can make or break a reputation. Every media interview is an opportunity to display the above qualities, and to speak directly to a huge audience.

For Obama, pictures spoke a thousand words as many media channels broadcast split images of President Obama surveying the devastated landscapes of New Jersey and comforting survivors, juxtaposed with Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s simultaneous appearance at a Florida campaign rally.


So have people’s perceptions changed?

Tomorrow is election day, and we will find out if Obama’s display of leadership following the devastation of Sandy will be enough to win him a second term as US president; however his actions have certainly won him support and recognition from even the most unlikely quarters –

Just twelve days before hurricane Sandy swept the coast of New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie, proud Republican scathingly spoke of President Obama’s leadership, stating he was

“like a man wandering around a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership and he just can’t find it”

However, the storm – which at the time of writing has claimed at least 110 lives and could cost the US up to $45 bn – and the government’s relief efforts have prompted a U-turn in the tone of Christie’s rhetoric. Christie has praised the president’s response as “excellent” and said that he “can’t thank the president enough for coming to Jersey’s aid”.

Obama has successfully managed to sway someone whose views had previously seemed unswayable – how? In Christie’s own words:

“Leadership delivers. Leadership counts. Leadership matters”

Read more about crisis leadership in Steelhenge’s ‘Cornerstones of Crisis Management’ white paper, and learn to lead successful crisis responses with our crisis leadership workshops

About ClaudiavdHeuvel

Steelhenge Project Manager and co-author of Steelhenge's thought leadership series. With a PhD in crisis response, my specialist subjects include leadership, decision-making, exercises and terror attacks.

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