19 Feb Six Leadership Lessons from Parkland, Florida
Following the tragic school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I have been thinking about the victims, survivors and their families. No parent should send their child to school, only to wonder if they’ll return home safely. No student should wonder if a school day will be their last. No teacher should have the burden of preparing lesson plans, and active shooter plans while wondering if they themselves will lose their lives on school grounds. Yet that is the predicament parents, teachers and students increasingly find themselves.
Remarkably, high school students are showing the way forward. A group of students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School announced plans to force elected leaders to take action to keep them safe. Regardless of where you fall on the gun control debate, there are several leadership lessons to be gleaned from every crisis and this one is no exception. Here are six things leaders should do following a crisis of this magnitude:
In the aftermath of a tragedy, we’re sometimes left speechless. When we’re at a loss for words, it’s easy to remain quiet, but leadership requires that leaders “say and do something.” In the same way that you are grappling with what to do following a crisis, your team is too. Don’t wait too long to speak. If you’re not sure what to say, simply acknowledge the pain your team may be feeling and consider offering space for staff to process those feelings. Also, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that if the issue doesn’t directly connect to your work, you shouldn’t address it. If an issue, such as gun violence, is happening in society, it is likely on the minds and in the psyche of your employees. All the more reason you should acknowledge it and provide a space for dialogue.
When we see others in pain, expressing empathy goes a long way. As leaders, we should empathize with our teams, placing ourselves in their shoes and doing our best to offer support. Listening with your full attention is an important way to show empathy. Any response in the aftermath of a crisis should include empathy.
“Leadership is about empathy.” Oprah Winfrey
When a crisis strikes, anxiety and panic quickly sets-in. Leaders should acknowledge concern, empathize with their teams and then outline a plan forward. By being action-oriented, leaders can also reassure their teams that they will thrive.
Tell the Truth.
While we want to assure our teams, it’s important to tell the truth. Don’t promise more than you can realistically deliver. Doing so will not only backfire, but it’ll erode any trust you’ve gained. Part of telling the truth is telling your team what they can expect and when they can expect it. Be sure to provide a timeline so team members know when they can expect you to deliver on your promises.
Dispense with Blame.
When something terrible has happened, we want to find the cause and it’s easy to point fingers assigning blame to everyone but ourselves. But leaders should take care not to get caught in a “blame game.” There are few things less attractive than a leader who constantly blames others as opposed to accepting responsibility for the part you own. Own your part and move on. And if accountability is necessary, be sure to be solution-oriented.
While it’s important for leaders to communicate clearly in the aftermath of a crisis, they should also take action. Only action will assuage a fearful team or a fearful public. Consider the 1982 Tylenol recall. When 7 people died after taking Tylenol, Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of Tylenol, quickly issued a recall for the over-the-counter pain medicine. It was determined that poison was added to some bottles of the medicine, making it fatal upon consumption. Johnson & Johnson didn’t convene a committee to determine the extent of the damage. They didn’t wait for the death toll to rise. They acted promptly by recalling the medicine, issuing national warnings about the contaminated medicine, and establishing a hotline for concerned consumers. They also developed tamper-proof containers to further protect consumers. The recall cost Johnson & Johnson millions of dollars and lost market share, but the company eventually bounced back due to their savvy handling of the crisis.
The lesson for the rest of us is clear; platitudes and empty rhetoric won’t suffice. When faced with a crisis or the threat of a crisis, leaders must act.