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Leadership in Crisis through the Lens of a Reporter [John Wisdom]

Leadership in Crisis through the Lens of a Reporter [John Wisdom]

Leadership in Crisis through the Lens of a Reporter [John Wisdom]

Always Take the Lead 

Stern MBAs Show Grace under Pressure
by John Wisdom

“What are you trying to hide from us?”

“Are local citizens at risk?”

“When can we expect another briefing?”

I was jumping up out of my chair and yelling these questions like a maniac.

I was doing this, I told myself, in the name of higher education and better leadership practices – although the Stern MBA students I was badgering may not have agreed.

We were all taking part in a Leadership in Crisis simulation, a day-long learning experience created for first-year MBAs by Connie Kim, senior director of the Leadership Development Program at NYU/Stern, and Dr. Larry Barton, one of the premier experts in threat assessment and crisis management.  Global professional services firm Alvarez & Marsal sponsored the event – which was notable not only from the standpoint of financial support, but personal commitment: several A&M executives were on hand to lend their time and expertise as coaches and judges.

As for the simulation – let’s just say that it wasn’t your typical Saturday at Stern.  The students were divided into five teams, each representing the executive leadership of a real company facing a fictitious (but unfortunately all-too-possible) crisis scenario: a nightmare convergence of drug cartel technocrime, terrorist infiltration, and geopolitical tension.

For added atmosphere, Dr. Barton and his team created a riveting reel of cable news footage and ran it on several walls and screens throughout KMC; in the “crawl” at the bottom of the frame, crisis updates were interspersed with contemporary news items – so the teams could read about their company’s fate as it unfolded.

I, along with four colleagues from NYU (Beth Briggs, Hannah Ross Crane, Bronwen Sanders, and Eliza Shanley), played the role of a journalist – and our mock press conferences were just a small part of the unexpected challenges the MBAs would encounter as they attempted to assess the crisis, coordinate with law enforcement, military and government officials, save their employees, contain the bad guys, and reassure their stakeholders – all in a few hours.

In setting the stage for the event, Dr. Barton added a critical caveat: “It’s the middle of the day, you’re all together as management teams in the same room with open lines of communication, you’re well dressed, you have good food,” said Dr. Barton.  “This will never be the case during a real-world crisis.”

But, he continued, everything else about the simulation would be as close to the real thing as possible.  And it was, for good reason.

“If at some point in the future you find yourself managing an actual crisis, and you remember just one or two ideas or techniques from this day, that’s a win.  You’re going to be in a much better position,” Dr. Barton explained.

During my own career in communications, I’ve been part of several corporate “war rooms.”  Yet crisis communications, once a specialty, is now a core capability – as tragic headlines remind us all too often.  Businesses regularly host at least some form of crisis management training each year.  (A small percentage still do not, surprisingly, but this will change.)  In today’s multi-threat environment, it is impossible to over-prepare.  The ability to communicate clearly, confidently and credibly in the midst of utter chaos is essential.

As for the students – they were all standouts.  Some began the day a little nervous or overwhelmed; others were a little overconfident.  All of them seemed to adapt and improve throughout the experience, as the best leaders tend to do.

While the teams grappled with pressure and stress, and made their share of mistakes, they also exhibited tremendous collaboration and professionalism.  One group organized quickly, identifying key priorities, breaking into sub-teams and dividing up the work.  Another group was remarkable for its compassion and humanity – they clearly put people first.  Another demonstrated a great grasp of the power of social media in a crisis situation.  One group had high energy and was able to go deep into all the details.  Another was especially sophisticated in dealing with external resources and stakeholders.

Perhaps the most vital and applicable summation, for me, was offered by Jose Vignon, who was making his first trip to New York to support the event as a special advisor.

“Always take the lead,” Mr. Vignon advised the students.  He spoke from experience: Mr. Vignon does this sort of work in real life as the Senior Security Manager for Emerson, covering Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.  “Always take the lead, never sit back and wait,” he emphasized.

It was advice that the Stern MBAs have already embraced in many ways.  As a result of the Leadership in Crisis simulation, it’s a lesson they will likely carry forward with new perspective.


About the Author

John Wisdom is a C-suite communications advisor recognized for strategies that transform culture and build brand equity.  His work enabled GE to earn and maintain the #1 ranking as the world’s Top Company for Leaders.  He has served as senior communications advisor to the CEO of TIAA, and, through his own executive communications practice, has represented clients including Novartis, McKinsey & Company, and The Wall Street Journal.   Wisdom graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.

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