COPING WITH UNSCHEDULED EVENTS: THE CHALLENGES OF CRISIS ...
COPING WITH UNSCHEDULED EVENTS: THE CHALLENGES OF CRISIS
Arjen Boin, Allan McConnell and Paul ‘t Hart
During George W. Bush’s term of office as president, the United States was hit by two
national catastrophes: the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina. Remarkably, the timing,
perceived adequacy and popular support for his government’s crisis response varied greatly.
The immediate White House response to the 9/11 attacks was widely seen as effective,
whereas its response to Katrina was roundly criticized. Bush’s personal approval ratings shot
up in the wake of the 9/11 crisis, but his presidency never fully recovered from Katrina.
Bush’s first Congressional speech after 9/11 was a major success and secured him strong
bipartisan support. In contrast, Bush bore the brunt of unprecedented public condemnation for
the bungled disaster response in New Orleans. A Congressional committee which examined
the decisions leading up to and during the crisis, labeled the Katrina tragedy as a ‘failure of
If presidential leadership is largely about ‘teaching reality’ as Hargrove claims, then
Bush passed with flying colors in the weeks following 9/11. His performance projected a
‘dignified authenticity’ and launched him as a ‘heroic’ and ‘charismatic’ leader. In contrast,
he struggled, and was publicly criticized for struggling, during the aftermath of Katrina.
Hurricane Katrina will go down in history as a failure of leadership in times of crisis, not just
by Bush but at all levels of government involved in the tragedy.
These contrasting cases have resonance beyond the United States. Crisis leadership
throughout the world is an important and risky endeavor for holders of high public office.
During crises, leadership abilities are put to the test. If they are seen to have passed the test,
their power and authority will increase commensurably (New York Mayor, Rudi Giuliani
after 9/11; German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder after the 2002 river floods; UK Prime
Minister Gordon Brown after his initial response to the global financial crisis). If, however,
they are seen to have failed, their political capital may shrink quickly (Spanish Prime Minister
José María Aznar after the 2004 Madrid Bombings; Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc
Dehaene after the 1998 dioxin contamination crisis, Indian Home Officer minister Shivraj
Patil after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks).
Two key questions in the study of crisis leadership thus present themselves. First, we
ask how leaders prepare for and perform under the intense personal and political pressures
generated by crises. However, we should not assume that crises are simply ‘bad news’ for
leaders, with crisis management focused purely on damage limitation, both operationally and
politically. Crises may also provide leaders with unique opportunities to discard old policies
and commitments, kick-start new ones, reform public organizations, and reshape the political
landscape by forging new coalitions. Hence a second pivotal question about crisis leadership
is: how do leaders identify and use crisis-induced opportunities for policy innovation and
This chapter reviews classic and contemporary contributions to the study of crisis
management, focusing on what they teach us about the specific challenges of crisis leadership
for holders of high public office. It highlights six such challenges. Before exploring these
challenges, we discuss key crisis concepts: how do we know a crisis when we see one, and
what makes a crisis so different from everyday policy processes and issues that it warrants,
and indeed triggers, distinct forms of leadership?
Crises: realities and constructions
In our definition, a crisis occurs when policymakers experience ‘a serious threat to the basic
structures or the fundamental values and norms of a system, which under time pressure and
highly uncertain circumstances necessitates making vital decisions’ (Rosenthal, Charles and ‘t
Hart, 1989: 10). This definition covers many different phenomena such as natural disasters,
industrial accidents, financial meltdowns, major product failures, policy fiascos, terrorist attacks,
hostage takings and major epidemics. All these contingencies create tough conditions for those
who are expected to lead the response. These crisis leaders have to make quick yet far-reaching
decisions while often lacking essential information. Below, we examine more closely, three key
components of the phenomenon of crisis: threat, uncertainty and urgency.
Crises occur when core values or vital systems of a community come under threat. Think
of widely shared values such as safety and security, welfare and health, integrity and fairness,
which become shaky or even meaningless as a result of (looming) violence, destruction, damage
or other forms of adversity. This explains why the prospect of war or natural disaster (floods,
earthquakes, hurricanes, heatwaves) usually evokes a deep sense of crisis. The threat of death,
damage, destruction, or bodily mutilation violates deeply embedded societal values of safety and
Mass destruction is, of course, but one threat that can trigger a crisis. As the global
financial crisis of 2008 amply demonstrates, a socio-economic crisis may follow if the job
security of citizens is threatened. However, size of threat cannot be derived by counting the
numbers of bodies, jobs or dollars affected. Psychological or societal impacts of threats are a
function of cultural expectations about levels of order and security which vary widely within and
between different communities and polities, partly depending upon existing levels of
preparedness and prior experience (Quarantelli, 1998; Perry and Quarantelli, 2005). The Anthrax
scare and the Washington Beltway snipers caused the death of relatively few people in the fall of
2001, but nevertheless evoked widespread fear among the public and severely affected
community life in significant parts of the United States for weeks. A flood killing 50 people may
be a routine occurrence in Bangladesh, but would be considered a national crisis in Sweden or
Crises induce a sense of urgency. If leaders ignore or downplay potential threats – for
example the Bush administration’s stance on Al Qaeda prior to 9/11, levee protection in
Southern Louisiana prior to Katrina, or climate change – the message is: `there is no crisis’.
While experts and activists may worry and attempt to push their concerns up the political agenda,
most leaders do not lose sleep over problems with a horizon that exceeds their political life
expectancy. Likewise, leaders and policymakers can feel a great sense of threat and time pressure
when they or their organizations become the subject of intense and critical media or
parliamentary scrutiny, even when the issues involved do not necessarily hold major importance
for actors outside that policy arena. Moreover, time pressure may be self-generated: in cases of
conflict and negotiation, every policymaker that seeks to pressure demonstrators, terrorists, or
states by setting a deadline or issues an ultimatum also puts pressure on him or herself to
‘deliver’ on time. When that deadline approaches with no solutions in sight, the sense of urgency
may quickly become overwhelming, as is the case with international trade negotiation
conferences or dispute resolution summits.
In a crisis, the perception of threat is accompanied by a high degree of uncertainty. This
uncertainty pertains both to the nature and the potential consequences of the developing threat:
What is happening? How did it happen? What’s next? How bad will it be? More importantly,
uncertainty clouds the search for solutions: What can we do? What happens if we select this
option? How will people respond? Again, uncertainty can be inherent in the situation at hand but
also in institutional responses to it. For example, when decision makers consult various radiation
experts on the risks associated with an accident at a nuclear facility, such experts may well
disagree on the nature and depth of these risks or on the measures that need to be taken.
In sum, crises are the combined products of unusual events and shared perceptions that
something is seriously wrong. However, no set of events or developments is likely to be
perceived fully uniformly by members of a community. Perceptions of crisis are likely to vary
not just among communities – societies experience different types of disturbances and have
different types and levels of vulnerability and resilience – but also within them, reflecting the
different biases of stakeholders as a result of their different values, positions and
responsibilities. These differential perceptions and indeed accounts of a crisis set the stage for
crisis leadership (see Figure 1).
[Figure 1 about here]
A crisis is not some ontological entity, but a label denoting the negative impact of an
event. When leaders are confronted with one and the same set of events – a hurricane, a case
of abject bureaucratic failure, a college shooting spree, public health scares – they may adopt
fundamentally different postures. We distinguish here between:
1. leadership denial that the events in question represent anything more than an
unfortunate incident. This stance is likely to produce a downplaying of the idea that
the events have any political or policy repercussions.
2. leadership acceptance of events as a critical threat to society and the public interest.
This posture is likely to lead to a defense from criticism of incumbent office-holders,
policies and organizational practices.
3. leadership recognition of a critical opportunity to expose deficiencies in the status quo
ex ante. Adopting such a position is likely to lead to blame being leveled at advocates
of the status quo, and attacks on dysfunctional policies and organizations in order to
marshal support for change and reform.
There are two types of issues at play in the perception and interpretation of any given set of
unanticipated events (Boin, ‘t Hart and McConnell, 2009). The first centers around their
significance: are they inside or outside a policymaker’s ‘zone of indifference’ and standard
coping processes? Are they ‘big as well as bad’ for the communities affected (the UN panel of
scientists’ view of climate change); ‘bad but not really big’ (the view of the nuclear industry
on incidents at nuclear power plants); ‘big but not really all that bad’ (the Stern report’s view
on climate change), or neither (the espoused view of many US banks and financial institutions
in the early stages of the 2007-8 wave of mortgage defaults that would subsequently escalate
into a global economic crisis)?
As interpretations of unscheduled events differ, policymakers may engage in a
significance contest with other interests such as opposition parties, the media and victims and
their families. At stake in this contest is the agenda status of the unscheduled events: will they
be seen as top-priority opportunities or threats (positions 2 and 3), or can they safely be
ignored, downplayed, and dealt with through existing programs and routines (position 1)?
When denial is infeasible, the main emphasis in the construction of crisis centers on
causality: who or what is the driving force behind the course of events? At stake here are two
matters of great concern to leaders: the accountability and future careers of senior office-
holders, as well as the future for beleaguered policies, programs and organizations (see e.g.
the political and policy stances of the three positions in Figure 1).
Now that we have established the dimensions along which crises are defined, and
indeed actively constructed in social and political arenas, we will explore research findings
from a variety of social science disciplines with regard to individual, group, organizational
and political behavior during crises.
Crisis research: A bird’s eye view
The crisis field is best described as an amalgam of niche perspectives drawn from across the
social sciences (Rosenthal, Charles and ‘t Hart, 1989; Rosenthal, Boin and Comfort 2001;
Drennan and McConnell, 2007). In sociological terms, crisis marks the phase during which
order-inducing institutions stop to function, appear deficient and/or are widely called into
question. Yet sociologists have also noted a crisis can arouse public attention (Barton, 1969),
which opens people up to novel modes of thinking and collective problem-solving (if only out
of sheer necessity).
Within the specialised subfield of disaster sociology, a long-standing, comparative
focus on collective behavior, disaster myths and the pathologies of top-down coordination in
times of adversity, has produced a vast and invaluable body of research fruitful to
understanding social dynamics of crises (Drabek, 1985; Rodriguez, Quarantelli and Dynes,
2006). Disaster sociologists have paid little attention to official leadership roles and practices;
they study ‘situational leadership’, e.g. when individuals other than the formal top office-
holders perform crucial leadership roles in organizing community crisis responses (Barton,
Psychological studies of individual and group behavior under stress have become a
pillar of crisis research. When stress levels escalate beyond optimum points of arousal,
performance effectiveness starts to decrease, with decision makers prone to making errors of
judgement, if not engaging in outright dysfunctional behavior (Janis, 1989; Post 2004).
Moreover, social-psychologists have shown that surrounding oneself with advisory groups
does not necessarily shield leaders for the deleterious effects of stress. On the contrary, certain
types of group structures and group leadership practices may in fact amplify rather than
constrain stress-induced defective reality-testing (Janis, 1982; ‘t Hart, 1994; ‘t Hart, Stern and
In addition, psychologists have done important work that helps us understand the
relation between human error, technology, organizational culture and the development of
crisis (Reason, 1990). This field of safety research has developed a complementary
perspective on critical decisions made by operational crisis commanders, which is known as
natural decision-making (Flin, 1996). It shows that well-trained incident commanders make
crisis decisions in a very particular way. They compare their situational assessment with
‘mental slides’ of similar situations experienced before. When they find a match, they select
the decision that comes with that matching slide.
In the field of international relations, crisis scholars tend to analyze international
conflicts in terms of high-level decision-making as well as the dynamic interaction between
parties (Brecher, 1993; George, 1993). In explaining the escalation and outcomes of
international conflicts, they study how leaders’ belief systems and perceptions as well as
organizational politics, and small-group dynamics affect the critical decisions made during
foreign policy crises (Allison and Zelikow, 1999; Verbeek, 2003).
In early political science studies of political development, crises referred to inevitable,
perhaps even necessary, phases of disorder in a nation’s march toward democracy (see f.i.
Binder et al. 1971). The sociological meaning of the term was thus preserved, as political
scientists applied it to describe a phase in which established institutions had lost their
legitimacy. But this line of research presumed a linear, progressive view of political
development which has been heavily criticised and largely abandoned. In contrast, when
contemporary political scientists refer to crisis, no such presumptions are made. They, rightly,
ask: crisis for whom? They recognize that one actor’s crisis may be another’s opportunity.
They thus shift the analytical agenda to questions of how, by whom, and for which purposes
certain events or episodes become portrayed and understood as crises.
In business and management studies, scholars have produced a substantial body of
conceptual, empirical and prescriptive work on corporate crisis preparedness and response
(Mitroff, 2003; Curtin, Hayman and Husein, 2005). Paradigmatic cases of corporate crisis
behaviour dominate this field (for example, the Tylenol product failure, the Bhopal chemical
disaster, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez, and, more recently, WalMart’s astute response to
Hurricane Katrina). These cases are told and retold to prepare corporate leaders for reputation
damage, market shifts, frauds and other contingencies threatening their firms. In this field,
crises are viewed as major opportunities for dramatizing commitment to corporate citizenship
in times of wider societal distress (Pauchant and Mitroff, 1992).
Finally, in media and communications research, the focus is on the relation between
crisis actors, (political) stakeholders, media and civilians (Fearn-Banks, 1996; Ulmer, Seeger,
and Selmer, 2007). This body of research helps us understand the critical role of media in
‘framing’ crises; it highlights the behaviour of leaders in the public arena, assessing the
impact of crisis postures, critical decisions and crisis communications.
All this work on crises and crisis management does not specifically answer the
research questions on leadership posed in the introduction. However, it does provide us with a
clear understanding of the dynamics of crises and the hardships they impose on societies. In
the next section, we reinterpret and recast these findings in terms of the challenges for crisis
Public leadership in times of crisis: Six critical challenges
Citizens whose lives and well-being are threatened, expect governments and public agencies
to do their utmost to keep them out of harm’s way. They expect officials in charge to make
critical decisions and provide direction even in the most difficult circumstances. So do the
journalists that produce the stories that help shape the crisis in the minds of the public. And so
do members of legislatures, interest groups, institutional watchdogs, non-governmental
organizations and other voices on the political stage. No matter how misplaced, unfair or
illusory these expectations may be, they are real in their political consequences.
In contemporary Western societies, a crisis sets in motion extensive follow-up
reporting, investigations by political forums as well as civil and criminal juridical
proceedings. It is not uncommon for public officials and agencies to be singled out as the
responsible actors for prevention, preparedness and response failures. Public leaders must
routinely defend themselves against seemingly incontrovertible evidence of their
incompetence, ignorance or insensitivity.
At the strategic level of senior public office-holders, crisis management amounts to
more than harnessing the coping capacity of governments and public organizations; it is in
fact an intensely political and sometimes deeply controversial activity (‘t Hart, 1993). Figure
2 contrasts the standard view of emergency management as a dominantly operational,
technocratic, consensual, collective problem-solving activity with the less oft-voiced, but no
less pertinent politico-strategic perspective on crisis leadership that we adopt in this chapter.
[Figure 2 about here]
The strategic leadership perspective on crisis management identifies six critical
challenges for senior office-holders: sense making, decision making, coordinating, meaning
making, terminating/accounting and learning (Boin et al. 2005). These are executive tasks
which fall within the domain of strategic leadership and must be performed by those carrying
The attack on the World Trade Center took the United States by complete surprise that
morning of 11 September 2001. In the hours and days following the first ghastly television
images, officials at all levels of government scrambled to understand what exactly had
happened, why and how. They worried what would be next and what could be done to prevent
it. In hindsight, it is clear what happened that day. But for those who lived through it, 11
September was the day that nothing made sense. The world as they knew it had changed
With the exception of swift and devastating events such as tsunamis, nuclear explosions and
terrorist bombings, a crisis does not announce its arrival. Crises, especially in the very early
stages, produce vague, ambivalent, and often conflicting signals, which policy makers must
interpret and recognise as ‘crises’ rather than routine problems that can be dealt with using
standard processes and procedures. For example, is an explosion at an electricity generating
plant an isolated incident, or is it the beginning of a cascading sequence of breakdowns? And
is the cause is the explosion a technological malfunction or a deliberate attack? Policymakers
must ‘make sense’ of events as they unfold. Leaders need to determine the likely level of
threat, who or what will be affected, the scope for operational and strategic interventions, and
how the crisis is likely to develop. Signals come from many sources: some loud, some soft,
some accurate, some rumor and speculation, and some bearing no relation to reality. How can
The following summary of these executive tasks is based largely on Boin , ‘t Hart, Stern and Sundelius (2005).
crisis policymakers judge which is which? How can they extract coherent and credible signals
from the noise of crisis?
The bewildering pace, ambiguity and complexity of a crisis can easily overwhelm
normal modes of situation assessment. Stress may further impair sensemaking abilities. The
organizations in which crisis managers typically function tend to produce additional barriers
to crisis recognition. In fact, research shows that organizations are unable to detect even the
most simple incubation processes with only a few factors at work, standard interactions, and
long lead-times (Turner and Pidgeon, 1987).
Some types of people are known for their capacity to remain calm and collected under
conditions of stress and uncertainty. They have developed a mode of information processing
that enables competent performance under crisis conditions (Flin, 1996; Klein, 2001). Veteran
military officers, journalists, and fire and police commanders generally possess such well-
developed capacities. Senior politicians and bureaucrats are also likely to be veterans –
of many political and bureaucratic conflicts during their years of ascending their respective
ladders. Those who reach the top in political and bureaucratic arenas tend to have a strong
capacity to cope with stress.
Some researchers also point to organizations that have developed a proactive culture
of ‘looking for problems’ in their environment. These so-called high reliability organizations,
such as air traffic control systems and fire-fighting teams, have somehow developed a
capacity for thorough yet fast-paced information processing under stressful conditions. The
unresolved question is whether organizations can design these features into existing
The classic example of crisis decision-making is the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), during
which U.S. President John F. Kennedy was presented with pictures of Soviet missile
installations under construction in Cuba. The photos conveyed a geostrategic reality in the
making that Kennedy considered unacceptable, and it was up to him to decide what to do
about it. Whatever his choice from the options presented to him by his advisers – an air strike,
an invasion of Cuba, a naval blockade – and however hard it was to predict the exact
consequences, one thing seemed certain: his decision would have a momentous impact on
Soviet-American relations and world peace.
Responding to crises confronts governments and public agencies with pressing choices. The
threats and demands generated by crisis may be so huge that scarce resources available will
need to be prioritized. In some senses this is little different from routine political choices,
except that under conditions of crisis, the gap between the demand for and supply of public
resources is typically much bigger. Crises also test governments and leaders beyond the
stresses and strains of routine politics and bureaucracy; for example concerning the strategic
deployment of military resources, the use of lethal force against another nation, or the radical
curtailing of civil liberties. Critical decisions surrounding such issues must be made under
conditions of uncertainty and volatility, with little time to consult and gain acceptance from
colleagues, advisors and others who would normally be engaged in decision-making
Crisis decision-making is about taking tough decisions amid conflicting values and
major political risks (Janis, 1989; Brecher, 1993). Research on small-group decision making
has shown the impact that crisis conditions – stress and uncertainty – can have on the quality
of the decision-making process. While the myth of the strong crisis leader will have us believe
that individual brilliance can overcome these hurdles, research shows that leaders often get
caught in the intricacies of small-group decision making.
It is thus interesting to note that many pivotal crisis decisions are not taken by individual
leaders or by small informal groups of senior policy makers. They emerge from various
alternative, decentralized loci of decision making and coordination (‘t Hart, Rosenthal and
Kouzmin, 1993). In fact, the crisis response in modern society is best characterized in terms of a
network. This is not necessarily counterproductive, many leaders have learned that delegation of
decision-making authority down the line usually enhances resilience rather than detracts from it.
This is a correction to the popular image of the mythical crisis leader who determines the fate of
the world by making critical decisions.
After Hurricane Katrina broke the levees and flooded New Orleans, the response to this
natural disaster just seemed to fall apart. Survivors spent days on highways, in the
Superdome and the Convention Center, without food, water or ice. A wide variety of
organizations – national and international, public and private – descended on the Crescent
City, but logistical chains did not reach the survivors for weeks. Only one of the horror
studies described the plight of a truck drives with a load of ice who never managed to make
Coordination is not an inevitable feature of crisis management operations. The question ‘who
is in charge?’ can arouse great passions and produce many different answers. A well-
documented disaster phenomena, as witnessed in the 2005 Asian tsunami, is the ‘battle of the
samaritans’, where different aid organizations and agencies struggle to coordinate amid their
different priorities, technologies and communication systems. Moreover, a crisis does not
make organizations suddenly ‘forget’ long-standing sensitivities, conflicts and even rivalries.
An effective response to a large-scale crisis or disaster requires interagency and
intergovernmental coordination (Hillyard, 2000). After all, each decision must be
implemented by a set of organizations; only when these organizations work together is there a
chance that effective implementation will happen. Such cooperation cannot be mandated.
Leaders may call upon organizations to be flexible and improvise, but this requires a sea
change that many public organizations cannot muster. After all, these organizations were
originally designed to conduct their core business in accordance with such values as fairness,
lawfulness and efficiency. The required behavior in times of crisis runs against deeply
institutionalized bureaucratic instincts.
For crisis leaders to be effective coordinators, they must understand that a truly
effective crisis response is to a large extent the result of a naturally evolving processes and
decentralized networks. A crisis cannot be managed in a linear, step-by-step and
comprehensive fashion from a single crisis center, even if it is full of top decision makers and
has access to state-of-the-art technology. There are simply too many hurdles that separate a
leadership decision from its timely execution in the field. Effective leaders facilitate – rather
than direct – collaboration between network agencies. They do so by by information sharing,
resource allocation, problem solving and by publicly giving credit where credit is due.
In the run up to the invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, the British government prepared
the grounds by releasing intelligence reports suggesting that Saddam Hussein possessed
‘weapons of mass destruction’ that could reach the United Kingdom within minutes. The BBC
soon reported that the underlying intelligence was ‘sexed up’ to make the claim. The British
government denied the charge and demanded an apology from the BBC, which stood by its
claim. When pressured, the BBC finally revealed its source: Dr Kelly, an arms expert, who
subsequently committed suicide. The BBC entered a deep institutional crisis, which resulted
in the ousting of its chairman.
In times of crisis, there are high expectation on leaders to quell uncertainty and produce an
authoritative account of what is happening, what caused it to happen and what action needs to
be taken. Once they have made sense of events, appraised the situation and made strategic
policy choices, leaders must gain acceptance of this account from others. They must give
‘meaning’ to the unfolding crisis in order to gain legitimacy for their crisis management
efforts. If they fail to, or fail to do so effectively, their decisions will neither be understood
nor treated with respect. If other actors and stakeholders in the crisis are more effective at
meaning making and fill the political vacuum with credible and respected interpretations, the
capacity of incumbent leaders to maneuver and take authoritative decisions is severely
Two problems often recur. First, public leaders do not have a monopoly on framing
the crisis. Their messages are often countered by the news media, political opponents and
others who advocate alternative frames of the causes of the crisis causes, its consequences and
the specific action that is needed. Censoring such voices is politically and logistically
unviable in a plural democracy which enables mass communications through internet, mobile
phones, Facebook and YouTube – as evidenced by the failure of the US strategy of
‘embedded journalism’ in shaping (i.e. constraining) the images of the Iraq war. Al Jazeera
and the World Wide Web provided plenty of rude corrections to the US-led coalition’s
propaganda machine, as exemplified by the revelations of torture in Abu Grahib prison.
Second, authorities often cannot immediately provide correct information. They
struggle to cope with masses of raw data (second-hand reports, rumors, speculation, pictures)
that quickly accumulate in the midst of extraordinary events. Translating and rationalizing
these to produce a coherent picture is a significant challenge. A major public relations effort is
then needed to impart accurate, accessible information, which can be used as the basis for
appropriate action. Such efforts may be hindered because they need to reach an anxious and
even fearful audience. Stress and arousal can easily lead to the messages of leaders being
misinterpreted and distorted – especially among those parts of the audience who do not see
government as their ally. Pre-existing opposition and distrust in government do not simply
disappear, just because a crisis has arrived on the scene.
Terminating and accounting
On 26 December 2004, a tsunami killed hundreds of thousands in Indonesia, Thailand and Sri
Lanka. Among the victims were hundreds of tourists from the Nordic countries. The
governments of Sweden and Norway were caught by surprise and reacted very slowly and not
very effectively. After the disaster, the Norwegian government accepted the blame and
apologized. The Swedish cabinet, in contrast, remained steadfast in its denial of wrongdoing.
A prolonged political crisis ensued, which found temporary closure in a very critical report.
The government was ousted in the 2006 elections.
Crisis leadership is also about ‘ending’ the crisis at the appropriate time – both operationally
and strategically. Doing so requires a scaling down and eventually a cessation of crisis
operations. It also requires at the political-strategic level, giving a coherent and credible
account for what has happened and persuading others to accept it. These two aspects of crisis
termination are conceptually distinct, but in practice are often closely interconnected. The
system of governance – its rules and conventions, institutions, power hierarchies and
networks – has to be (re)stabilized, and there must be a restoration of sufficient legitimacy to
govern and perform the routine functions of government. Leaders cannot do so by unilateral
decree, even if they possess authoritative legal or policy powers to terminate a crisis e.g. by
ending a state of emergency or revoking martial law. Formal termination may be out of touch
with the mood among citizens and communities. Premature closure may even rebound,
bringing with it allegations of underestimating the threats or covering up difficult issues.
Public anxieties are not always easy to dampen.
Crises produce winners and losers. The political and legal dynamics of accountability
processes play a significant role in determining which crisis actors emerge unscathed and
which end up with reputations and careers damaged (Brändström and Kuipers, 2003). Crisis
leaders can be competent and conscientious, but that alone says little about how their
performance will be evaluated when the crisis is over. If they ‘manage’ the political game of
the crisis aftermath well, leaders may prevent losses to their reputation, autonomy, and
resources (Boin, McConnell and ‘t Hart 2008).
The burden of proof in public discussions lies typically with leaders. They must
demonstrate with conviction that they cannot be held responsible for the cause of the crisis or
any subsequent escalation. Such accountability debates are often little more than ‘blame
games’ focused on identifying and punishing culprits rather than deliberating and reflection
seriously on crisis causes and consequences. A key challenge for leaders is coping with the
politics of crisis accountability, without the use of unseemly and potentially self-defeating
tactics of blame avoidance or ‘finger pointing’ that only serve to prolong the crisis and
heighten political tensions.
Only weeks after Hurricane Katrina had destroyed coast areas in Louisiana and Mississippi,
Hurricane Rita entered the Gulf of Mexico. When the projected trajectory of Rita included
Houston (the fourth largest city in the US), the Texas authorities quickly ordered an
evacuation. The lessons of Katrina had been learned! In the chaotic evacuation more than
100 people died. Hurricane Rita changed course and never reached Houston.
The extent to which lessons are learned after crisis (if they are learned at all) is one of the
most under-researched aspects of crisis management (Lagadec, 1997; Dekker and Hansen,
2005; Birkland, 2006). A crisis or disaster holds huge potential for lessons to be learned in
terms or reforming contingency planning and training in order to enhance resilience in the
event of similar episodes in the future. In an ideal world, we might expect all relevant players
to carefully study these lessons and apply them in order to reform organizational practices,
policies and laws. In reality, there are many barriers to lesson-drawing.
Organizations tend not to be good learners, and certainly not in the aftermath crises
and disasters. One crucial barrier is the lack of authoritative and widely accepted explanations
of the causes of crisis or disaster. Potential factors encompass individual, organizational,
technological and societal shortcomings, all of which can be subject to many different
interpretations and assumptions about their significance. Yet even if explanations could
attract common agreement, many organizational factors such as an excessive focus on core
goals at the expense of ‘looking for trouble’ can act as barriers to preventing future crises and
improving coping capacities in the event that they do occur. Most public service
organizations, for example, are focused strongly on delivering front-line public services,
rather than on scenario planning and crisis training. Worst case thinking is rarely high on
agendas (Clarke, 2005).
In addition to cognitive and institutional influences on learning lessons after crisis,
political and social aspects of a crisis can also be crucial. A dominant political depiction of a
crisis as the product of failures of prevention or lack of foresight in contingency planning, can
set the agenda for rethinks about policies, processes and organizational rules. However, other
players in the lesson-drawing game might attempt to use the political reform rhetoric to
advocate very different types of reforms from those put forward by leaders. Therefore, the
stakes are high for leaders in terms of their capacities to steer lesson-drawing processes. The
key challenge is to ensure that in the wake of crisis, they have a dominant influence on the
feedback stream and that existing policy networks and public organizations follow the
leader’s desired pathway.
Despite complex barriers to post-crisis learning, there remains a near-utopian belief in
academic literature but also in conventional wisdom, that crises also present opportunities
(Boin and ‘t Hart, 2003). A crisis can create windows of opportunity for policy reform,
institutional overhaul and even leadership revival. The 2001 foot-and mouth crisis in the UK
led to the abolition of an insular and backward-looking agricultural department. Barack
Obamba’s victory in the 2008 U.S. Presidential elections was helped by a perception that he
was better placed than his rival John McCain to lead the country’s economic revival.
A word of caution is necessary. Leaders need to be careful of ‘knee jerk’ reactions that
are high on symbolic value because they create the impressions of swift and decisive reform
action, but are not based on considered deliberation or sound rationale. Sweeping reforms and
the rapid replacement of key officials in response to a crisis or a critical inquiry report may
help create the impression that a leader is ‘in charge.’ However, such action may in fact
severely limit the capacity for genuine lesson-drawing, and may in fact create new
vulnerabilities or reinforce old ones.
The future of crisis leadership
This chapter has set out the premise that crisis leadership comprises a well-defined set of
hard-to-accomplish tasks (that is why we call them challenges). While we do not want to give
rise to the myth of the almighty leader who must save us from crises and disasters, it is clear
that our leaders have an important role to play in all the phases of a crisis. If public leaders are
effective in their crisis tasks, citizens are likely to benefit.
There is evidence to suggest that crisis leadership will become even more important in
the future as the nature of crises change. Two rather sweeping developments demand our
attention. First, crises are becoming increasingly interconnected and transboundary in nature
(Boin and Rhinard, 2008). Future crises such as pandemics and mega computer viruses will
transgress functional, geographical and time boundaries that used to keep crises and disasters
more or less contained. We are looking at crises that will escalate across policy domains and
countries, combining long incubation times with long-term effects. Such crises are harder to
manage through conventional means and strategies.
Second, the political-administrative capacity to deal with such crises has been
gradually eroding. The down-sizing of the state, the rise of New Public Management, the
fragmentation of the political spectrum – these are phenomena that can be easily exaggerated,
but it is hard to see how they contribute to the type of political-administrative coherence
required for dealing with transboundary crises.
Many things may change, but one thing that will remain the same is the call for
leadership that follows the onset of crisis. This creates a responsibility for leadership theorists
who have mostly shied away from studying crisis management and the issues that leaders face
in times of acute adversity. It is time that crisis management becomes viewed as an integral
and crucially important dimension of leadership, in both the public and private sectors.
References and further readings
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sequences in political development. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Birkland, T. A. (2006). Lessons of disaster: Policy change after catastrophic events. Washington,
DC: Georgetown University Press.
Boin, A., & 't Hart, P. (2003). Public leadership in times of crisis: mission impossible? Public
Administration Review, 63(5), 544-553.
Boin, A., `t Hart, P., Stern, E., & Sundelius, B. (2005). The politics of crisis management: Public
leadership under pressure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Boin, A., McConnell, A., & 't Hart, P. (Eds.) (2008). Governing After Crisis: The Politics of
Investigation, Accountability and Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Boin, A., 't Hart, P., & McConnell, A. (2009). Towards a theory of crisis exploitation: Political and
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Business as usual
Crisis as threat
Perception, Political stance:
Situation Interpretation Diffuse blame
(actor 1, 2,…)
Defend status quo
Crisis as opportunity
(actor 1, 2, ..)
Attack status quo
Figure 1. Identifying crises: perceptions and their political implications
Source: Boin, ‘t Hart and McConnell (2008: 84)
Classic ‘emergency management’ Strategic ‘crisis leadership’
Crises occur in the physical world: signals, Crises occur in the political world:
shocks, systems Perceptions, passions, players, positions,
Citizens as passive victims Citizens as active advocates
Media report events Media frame interpretations
Key arenas: ‘on-site’, line agencies, Key arenas: media, parliament, inquiries,
coordination centers inner circles
Key stakes: physical damage control, Key stakes: political damage control,
community recovery policy/organizational consequences
Figure 2. Coping with crisis: Emergency management vs. strategic leadership perspectives
Arjen Boin is an associate professor at the Public Administration Institute, Louisiana State
University. He received his Ph.D. from Leiden University, the Netherlands where he taught at
the Department of Public Administration before moving to LSU. Dr. Boin has published
widely on topics of crisis and disaster management, leadership, institutional design and
correctional administration. His most recent books are The Politics of Crisis Management
(Cambridge University Press, winner of APSA’s Herbert A. Simon book award), Governing
after Crisis (Cambridge University Press, 2008), and Crisis Management: A Three Volume Set
of Essential Readings (Sage, 2008). Dr. Boin serves on the editorial board of Risk
Management (Palgrave) and the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management
(Blackwell). He is the American editor for Public Administration, a premier journal in the
Allan McConnell is Professor of Politics in the Department of Government at the University
of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland, having moved there from the University of Sydney in
2009. His research and teaching interests cut across public policy and the politics of crisis
management. He has published on issues such as policy success, public accountability, critical
infrastructure protection, political responses to foot and mouth diseases, crisis leadership,
post-water crisis reform, and blaming in the wake of fiasco. His two most recent books are
Risk and Crisis Management in the Public Sector (Routledge, 2007) co-authored with Lynn
Drennan, and the edited volume Governing After Crisis: The Politics of Investigation,
Accountability and Learning (Cambridge University Press, 2008), co-edited with Arjen Boin
and Paul ‘t Hart. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Contingencies and Crisis
A Dutch Australian, Paul 't Hart is Professor of Political Science at the Research School of
Social Sciences, Australian National University, and Professor of Public Administration,
Utrecht School of Governance, Utrecht University, the Netherlands. His research, teaching
and training activities focus on elite behaviour and leadership in government, policy
evaluation, public accountability and crisis management. Recent books include The Politics of
Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure (Cambridge University Press 2005),
Observing Government Elites: Up Close and Personal (Palgrave 2007), Governing After
Crisis (Cambridge University Press 2008), Public Leadership: Perspectives and Practices
(ANU E Press 2008), and Dispersed Leadership in Democracy (Oxford University Press
2009, forthcoming). He is an editorial board member of several international academic
journals, and edits the Public Management and Public Leadership series for Palgrave (UK).
He will be a co-editor of Political Psychology (2010-2012).