Leading during a Crisis

This commentary has been adapted and embellished for trial court leaders.  It is based on a recent article published in The Economist (March 21, 2020), entitled “How corporate leaders should act in a crisis”. The author’s advice has relevance for government leaders as well, including presiding Judges and court executive officers.

When things are going well, it’s pretty easy being a court leader. Operations are going according to plan, caseloads are managed reasonably well, and there are no tricky decisions to make about work assignments, services, staff or budgets. It is still possible to screw things up, but a rising tide tends to lift all boats, or in our case, all court leaders.

It is in a crisis that leaders show their mettle. Judges and staff will look to leaders for direction. Sometimes, as with the covid-19 pandemic, the problem will be something few bosses could have reasonably anticipated. Now, they are expected to chart a steady course within days as the crisis continues to unfold.

In the political arena the obvious examples of successful crisis leadership are Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Both were somewhat erratic decision-makers. But they made up for it by being excellent communicators. Their styles diverged, but the public had little difficulty understanding their core message. Roosevelt made clear he was willing to try any combination of new ideas in an attempt to end the Depression; Churchill was unambiguous about the need for Britain to repel Nazi Germany, whatever the cost.

Court leaders should resist the temptation to give Churchillian speeches. But they have something to learn from the calm authority of Roosevelt’s
“fireside chats.” As a trial court presiding judge or chief executive officer, you have to communicate a message to two key audiences: your workforce and court users. The message should demonstrate that the court has a plan to deal with the virus. This may involve staff working from home (to prevent the spread of infection) or changes in case scheduling and services (to maintain critical, needed functions only the court can perform). Both the workforce and court customers will also need reassurance that the court and adjudication system are developing ways to deal with the aftermath of reduced services and staffing. Silence on such matters is neither an effective tactic nor morale booster during troubled times or a way to address work backlogs in the aftermath of the coronavirus.

For the long-term strategy, tips can be gained from the National Defense University (NDU), an American military college. In 2006, it produced a useful – and prescient – report called “Weathering the Storm: Leading Your Organization through a Pandemic.” It advised leaders to analyze the tasks required for an organization to continue operating and prioritize them. Many trial courts and state judicial systems have done so through COOP – continuity of operations plans – prompted by lessons learned from the difficulties encountered by courts after natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, and floods, tornados and forest fires more prevalent and damaging in today’s unending climate crisis. As a result, justice systems may be somewhat ahead of many corporate businesses in restructuring work processes in response to the covid-19 pandemic. Many courts are dusting those plans off, especially regarding essential functions, cross-training, online services and enhanced courthouse security.

How to handle crisis communication is another issue the NDU says is “critical.” It can matter as much as having the right message and doing the right things. This point is amplified by Shawn Engbrecht, a former U.S. Army ranger who now runs a personal protection company. He has written a highly entertaining, if not idiosyncratic, book entitled “Invisible Leadership.” “As a leader,” he cautions, “you can promise everything to the many until you are unable to deliver even a little to the few.” In the end, “Failure to tell the truth rapidly erodes trust and confidence in higher command.” Years ago, Jim Collins a Stanford University professor, in his research on how companies move from good to great said much the same thing… effective leaders honestly confront and acknowledge the “brutal facts” facing their organizations.

In a crisis, Mr. Engbrecht advocates “embracing the suck.” This means accepting where you are at a given moment: “Wishing, hoping and praying the problem away does not work, so don’t waste your time with coulda, shoulda or woulda.” In short, no sugarcoating. If everyone in the organization realizes there is a problem, they will not be assured by a leader blithely promising that it may go away.

A good court leader must take time to listen to the concerns of judges and staff and answer their questions. That may require a bit of patience. In Mr. Engbrecht’s words, “the quieter you become, the more you can hear.” Online town-hall gatherings are one example of how to be salutary.

Have a clear message, keep calm and be transparent: all obvious stuff, crisis or no crisis. And, good leaders also show they face at least some of the same dangers as their troops.