'Being there' is essential

By Ron Cacioppe and Joanne Ciulla

Whenever there is a crisis or a disaster one of the first things that people want to know is where their leader is and what is he or she doing about it.  The idea that leaders need to be at the right place at the right time is common sense but history shows that leaders often forget this. A number of presidents of nations and CEOs of private and public companies have not lived up to their followers' expectations.

History has many examples where the leader didn’t do the right thing.  For example, Nero has been described by Shakespeare and other writers as ‘fiddling while Rome burned’.  In Rome in 6 AD, a huge fire lasted six days and wiped out large portions of the city.  Nero returned to the burning city from his summer home and provided buildings, open spaces and food to people who lost their homes.  But all of his good deeds were overcome by the rumour that during the fire Nero played his cithar on his home stage about the burning city. Hence the term ‘fiddling when Rome burns’ came into being to describe a person who is distracted by minor matters while not attending to the important ones.

During a crisis people don’t want their leaders away from the office or on vacation.  They want their leaders to be at the right place paying attention to their needs. George W. Bush, Jr. was criticised for not going to Louisiana right after hurricane Karina struck. Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to understand that ‘being there’ was important when he stayed at his vacation dacha instead of going to the Barents Sea port after the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sank in 2000.  While Putin was in constant communication from his vacation home and felt he was doing everything he could even though he wasn’t at the scene, polls showed that the Russian people felt Putin should have been at the site. The public considered BP CEO Tony Hayward out of touch with the human tragedy of the Gulf oil spill when he took a weekend off to go yachting.

While turning up physically is the most important step in ‘being there’, it is not sufficient.  Being there also requires the ability to have empathy and to show care for the people who have been affected.  If a leader shows up at a disaster and appears wooden or shows superficial emotions, people will harshly judge this lack of authenticity.

NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Queensland Premier Anna Bligh both demonstrated extraordinary skill in ‘being there’ and showed the appropriate amount of genuine care and empathy for the victims of 9/11 and the Queensland floods. Patrick Snowball, the CEO of Suncorp, Australia’s largest general insurer, rushed back from his overseas holiday to put in place a total organisation response to the large number of damage claims that were sure to follow. Catriona Noble, CEO of McDonald’s immediately cancelled her holiday in Mexico to help their four Queensland outlets that have been completely submerged.

While national catastrophes such as floods, fires and global financial crises get dramatic newspaper and television news, every day employees have hundreds of important crises and emergencies to deal with such as customers cancelling major accounts, conflict between employees, security breaches, or significant problems with quality or costs of products and services.  Many times organisational leaders are ‘not there’ and managers and staff have to sink or swim on their own.  They not only need immediate and wise advice but care and empathy for the stress and concern they are feeling.  Emails, text messages and Skyping don’t provide the face-to-face feeling that people require if they are distraught.

Leaders who ‘fiddle while Rome burns” or stay on vacation while sailors die, underestimate the needs of their followers in times of crisis. Their presence on the job or at the scene signals followers that they are paying attention.  That is why people will continue to condemn leaders who fail to understand that they need to be and “fiddle while Rome burns.”

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