Early this summer in Tokyo, I had the opportunity to hear an insightful presentation on the media and social responses to the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown. The session was part of a Berlin School of Creative Leadership Executive MBA module in Asia and the presenter was an alumnus of that program, Yukio Nakayama, who serves as Executive Creative Director at the Dentsu advertising agency. After providing general background on the events, Yukio’s account focused on how Dentsu adapted the Internavi system, which provided everyday on-demand traffic information to individual drivers in Honda vehicles, to generate public mapping of road usage and access through Twitter and Google in the early days of the crisis. Extending the Internavi system and data on 311 is an inspiring example of how creative solutions to crises can emerge with the right leadership.
Before sketching out possible broader leadership lessons of the episode, we should be clear about what we mean by “crisis.” Helpful here is Herman “Dutch” Leonard’s call to distinguish routine from novelty. We can’t, Harvard professor Leonard believes, treat a true crisis as simply an “overgrown routine situation.” This problem of misperception occurs even in conscientious crisis preparation and planning efforts, when the underlying approach is to deploy more of the same kinds of resources (like police, medical, and food, reconstruction, data management) as during normal, non-crisis times.
We need also to take care to differentiate crises of the order of what happened in Japan in 2011 from crises faced by many organizational and business leaders. As important, even existential, as the latter may be for some firms, their crises lack the social, cultural and economic scale and sweeping life-and-death risks of 311. That said, in assessing such an immense event, we might nevertheless extract some principles that bear on the still complex decision-making and communications challenges faced by business leaders.
Explaining how Dentsu adapted Internavi’s capabilities within 20 hours for public benefit, Yukio illuminated several key tenets of successful leadership. These began with a situational awareness that enabled his colleagues to recognize the difference between the exceptional character of 311 and routine accidents or congestion. Also necessary was an understanding of how to build sudden collaborative structures across diverse institutions and constituencies. Preparation was essential, but, again, had to be of the appropriate type: while simulations and scenarios were fine, developing and testing capabilities for cooperation across organizations and with the public proved more helpful once the nuclear disaster occurred. Those capabilities, more specifically, included how to enable improvisation and, in this case, address and communicate quickly the problem of producing accurate traffic and road information.
The development of Internavi is a great example of decentralized intelligent adaptation at a societal level. Structurally, that decentralization involved non-hierarchical or top-down relationships among multiple public and private institutions enabled by technology. The intelligent adaptation was likewise marked by an ongoing and effective process of inquiry that facilitated collaborative problem-solving and communications.
Such tenets and tendencies are hardly unique to the Japanese experience, of course. In the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing Response [MBR], analysts found the successes of a variety of responders benefited from similar values of situational, collaborative, improvisational and inquiring leadership. In fact, the preliminary findings of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, released in April 2014, identified five foundations of the intelligence and leadership that shaped the Boston MBR:
1) An overriding objective that: forges unity of mission and connectivity of action; is compelling enough to override standard practices as needed; and obviates bureaucratic obstructions, distractions or bickering.
2) A spirit of generosity that rallies groups and individuals to assist one another and overcome constraints of resources, know-how or tools to achieve the paramount mission, expressed as “Whaddya got? Whaddaya need?”
3) Respect for the responsibilities and authorities of others, described as “staying in one’s lane” while assisting others to succeed in their lane to accomplish mission-critical duties and tasks.
4) Neither taking undue credit nor pointing blame among key players, oftentimes portrayed as “checking your ego at the door.”
5) Genuine inter-personal trust and respect developed well before the event so that existing and dependable leadership relationships, integrity, and camaraderie can be leveraged during the event, often described as “don’t wait for an emergency to exchange business cards.
The preliminary report discussed these findings as a positive instance of “swarm intelligence,” which is more generally understood as the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems. The concept initially arose with efforts to analyze and explain complexity in multi-agent systems, from bacterial growth, ant colonies and fish schooling to robot interactions and artificial intelligence. Among the usual precepts of swarm intelligence are diversity, independence and decentralization. In contrast to other approaches to group interactions and behavior, the concept also recognizes that too much internal communication can make the group as a whole less intelligent.
Analyses of responses to 311 in Japan and the Boston Marathon bombing offer valuable insights for leaders about how to work effectively in complex, decentralized systems dealing with novel and fast-changing situations. Yet their lessons, important as they are, tend to focus on the macro-level of institutional relationships or group dynamics and on the resulting decision-making, action and communications. While they recognize how essential are collaborative and trusting interpersonal relationships, in other words, it was beyond the scope of the analyses to examine more closely how individual leaders should behave to ensure the best collective decision-making and actions.
That research is ongoing elsewhere, perhaps most notably at the Center for Collective Intelligence at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Among the key factors of collective intelligence that have been identified there thus far is “social perception,” that is, the ability to discern someone else’s thinking and emotions. “When it comes to the effectiveness of groups,” said Thomas Malone, head of CCI, in a recent interview, “we are what we see in each other.” Beyond empathy, this social perceptiveness involves discernment of others as well as a kind of ongoing awareness of, and commitment to, the versatility of thinking and equality of contributions across the group.
A final level of leadership to be addressed in coping with crises involves the leader himself or herself. Not surprisingly, perhaps the best guidance in this regard comes from Bill George, the former Medtronic CEO and current Harvard Business School professor of management practice who wrote Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis in 2009. While much of the book addresses larger aspects of crises, it does so from the leader’s perspective (e.g., “dig deep for the root cause” or “blending internal and external communications”). However, at least two of George’s lessons, including the first, concern the leader’s own self-understanding: “Face reality, starting with yourself” and “You’re in the spotlight; Follow True North.”
Recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses and remaining true to one’s values and purpose are enablers of leadership success in all situations. However, in crises, such self-understanding and authenticity in decisions and actions are vital. George goes on to ask, “Will you stay focused on your True North or will you succumb to pressure?” The pressure and stress of crises derives from many causes, notably the novelty, complexity, and urgency of the dynamic situations they present. Retaining the presence of mind to think, act and work with others according to one’s own values while responding to those situations is a consummate leadership challenge.
Whether they are at the scale of 311 and the Boston Marathon Bombing or of a single organization whose local world has been turned upside down, crises are crucible experiences that define leaders. Yet perhaps counter-intuitively, an abiding lesson of the responses to these massive events is that more effective leadership resulted from individuals ceding control, sharing responsibilities, and openly collaborating and communicating with others. Rather than relying on a single authoritative leader taking unilateral actions and decisions, success emerged from individuals humbly willing to contribute to decentralized leadership and decision-making, to work collectively with a common purpose, and to learn together to solve novel problems.