[Weekly BIZ] Leaders must be the first in and last out… as with the pilot of
the Hudson River accident
April 26, 2014
Hoh Kim, Head Coach at THE LAB h, Minyeong Yu, Head Consultant at Acase
Reflecting upon the ‘Sewol ferry disaster’ through lessons from Harvard University’s Leadership In
Crises (LIC) program
Launch a designated ‘Red Team’ to investigate the accident immediately and minimize mistakes
Appoint a commander based on arrival on site and level of expertise not by seniority
Sit and listen to the victims side-by-side not face-to-face
Deliver positive messages to cope with chaos and trauma
Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University’s Leadership In Crises program is a world-
renowned course on national crisis management, which was first founded in 2001 and attended by over
700 leaders from nearly 50 countries. Ten lessons learned from participating in the program for a week
is introduced here in connection with the recent Sewol ferry tragedy.1
▲ Passengers await to be rescued atop the wings of US Airway Flight 1549 that crash-landed into the Hudson
River in April 2009. Sullenberger’s wise and prompt judgment saved the lives of 155 passengers and crew
members. / AP
1 This is the translation of the article printed in Weekly Biz section of Chosun Ilbo (April 26, 2014) in Korea.
About 30-40% of the original article submitted by authors to Chosun Ilbo has been edited due to the space
limitation. For example, the first paragraph of the original article was as follows: “We (two employees from
THE LAB h and ACase) participated in the Leadership in Crises (LIC) program held from April 6th
Harvard Kennedy School. Launched in 2001, the program has been attended by over 700 leaders from nearly 50
countries over the past decade. In this article, we have analyzed the case of the Sewol ferry crisis by applying the
case studies and crisis management principles taught at LIC, interview results with Professor Arnold Howitt of
Harvard Kennedy School along with insights from various consulting projects to finally identify 10 key factors
companies need to pay attention to for crisis management.” For any inquiry about this article, please contact Hoh
Kim at email@example.com or Minyeong Yu at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Wear the commander’s hat wisely
In the US, the commander-in-chief is appointed either based on who arrived at the site first or has the
deepest level of expertise. A fire broke out when the Pentagon was attacked on September 11, 2001. At
the time, James Schwartz who was number two in command at the Arlington County Fire Department
(ACFD) was the first to show up at the scene. As a result, Scwhartz was appointed to take command
instead of Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense. Even his senior from ACFD supported him saying,
“You have a better understanding of what happened here so you should take the helm.” On the contrary,
people who had no idea of the accident or expertise wore the commander hat for the Sewol ferry
accident turning it into a shambles.
2. First In, Last Out
Now retired Captain Chesley Sullenberg saved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew members by
boldly ditching the plane in the Hudson River when its engines broke down midair in New York.
Sullenberg double-checked the aircraft to make sure there was no one left behind before he finally
evacuated. New York firefighter John Salka gave the title ‘First In, Last Out’ on his book about
leadership lessons from the New York Fire Department. Taking full responsibility commensurate to
one’s name and title is what true leadership should be about.
3. Demonstrate ‘instantaneous resilience’
Realizing the engines were in trouble, Sullenberg drew a three dimensional map in his head peering
down at New York City. While air traffic control advised him to attempt landing at a nearby airport, he
quickly recognized that flying so close to New York’s skyline could result in a more devastating disaster
and landed the plan into Hudson River instead. This was a wise and prompt decision. We call this
experience and training based ‘instantaneous resilience’. Sullenberg had piloted nearly 19,500 hours and
received regular crisis training. Moreover, while the trainings took place in a classroom he also did
exercises on emergency landing into water. Many multinational companies offer routine crisis
management simulation courses for its CEO and executives and these types of trainings are more often
found in industries prone to higher risks such as chemicals, pharmaceutical as well as food and beverage.
4. Avoid ‘Head First’ responses
Credit card companies were helpless in the wake of massive private information leaks. They had never
braced themselves with crisis management training, were incapable of putting together a response
strategy and did not have any experts on standby. Consequently all they appeared to do was keep their
heads low and deny their wrongdoings or make up excuses upon official briefings and news coverage.
This kind of behavior is known as the ‘head first (rash and unconscious reaction)’ response. Always
make a War Room in case of a crisis outbreak. And no matter how hard a blow you are dealt with, get to
the bottom of the case and develop a strategy and goal for it accordingly.
5. Manage expectations
On the day Sewol ferry capsized, the government initially announced that 368 passengers were rescued
only to later continuously correct their statement to 164→174→175→176 and finally 179 people. The
Korean government taking back its original statement from ‘mostly rescued’ to ‘mostly missing’ will go
down in history as the worst ever mistake. By nature, human feel a relatively higher degree of
devastation and anger when expectations are set high and suddenly lowered dramatically because of the
significant rift between positive expectations and tragic reality. This is the very reason the UK
government kept on delaying the official disclosure on the number of victims after the terrorist attacks
on the London Underground. With no exception, the very first step in crisis management at global
companies is always fact checking.
6. Build a ‘Red Team’
In the TV drama ‘Newsroom’, the news bureau chief asks the main anchor to oversee the ‘Red Team’.
In simple terms, the ‘Red Team’ pokes holes in the facts covered by the ‘White Team’ to ensure that it
is fact-based and error-proof. This kind of practice is exercised in order to avoid editing facts in a way
people want to believe in. Likewise, global companies play a so-called ‘terrorist game’ to arm
themselves from potential crises. In this game, the CEO and executives serve as consumers, government
officials, civil activists and members of the press so that they can identify any loopholes that may
become targets by these stakeholders.
7. Don’t create a ‘crisis out of crisis management'
In general, a risk triggers two crises simultaneously. One is the risk itself and the other is the crisis
caused by handling the risk at hand. Earlier this year, two oil tanker accidents occurred off the coasts of
Yeosu and Busan. While the Busan accident suffered a larger oil spill and hence more critical, it had
less of a negative public reaction thanks to swift initial responses. However, the Yeosu oil spill still
looms large because of poor response by the coast guard in the wake of the accident. In fact, people
mostly talked about the touching story of two coast guards who sacrificed themselves on the tankers
while covered in oil after the Busan accident. A downpour in the name of a crisis can turn either into a
storm or can go away depending on how you handle the situation.
8. Do not “exchange business cards” at the scene of a disaster Be on a first name basis
This is a quote by Richard Serino, former senior executive at the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA). An emergency situation requires close cooperation of government organizations,
armed forces, police and corporates however, if people meet for the first time and exchange names only
after the accident occurs, teamwork can never really come into effect. Last year, Park So Ryoung of
Harvard University highlighted the ‘first name basis relationship’ by observing what happened before
and after the Boston Marathon bombings. The responders to the devastating crisis were already close as
they had attended the emergency trainings hosted by the Massachusetts Emergency Management
Agency together following the 9/11 attacks, which resulted in a meaningful synergy effect.
9. Engage in quick and frequent communication for cooperation
Professor Arnold Howitt of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University taught four
communication elements governments must engage in under an emergency situation as follows:
Only speak of known facts. While only facts that have been verified as true must be disclosed to the
public, this is where the Korean government first made its mistake.
Disclose the measures that are being taken. Frequently communicating what measures are being made is
equally important as acting upon it.
Explain what citizens should do. It is critical to deliver a clear message on what the people at the site of
the accident, families of the victims, government, politicians as well as citizens need to do. The fact that
stakeholders from dozens of emergency offices as well as the marine company released separate
statements of their own was a catastrophic mistake. A joint statement as in the case of the Boston
Marathon bombing is what is needed.
Offer an executive interpretation of the crisis. When a national disaster occurs, leaders must be able to
build their opinion to help their people cope with chaos and trauma. After the September 11 attacks,
then President George Bush delivered a message on ‘strong America’ and six days after asked
Americans to return to their lives and routines. Meanwhile, while there is no shortage of messages filled
with condemnation and punishment for those involved in the Sewol ferry sinking, it is hard to find any
determination on ‘overcoming (the crisis) as a single team’.
10. Keep an ‘internal listener’
Taking care of victims is the most important part of crisis management and yet often gets overlooked.
Along with nimbly preparing rescue measures, there also needs to be appropriate plans for the victims
and their families as well. This plan must include a person to act as an ‘internal listener’. The role is to
offer emergency medical support for both their physical and psychological wellbeing by empathizing
with their feelings of loss and panic. In the US, doctors and/or hospital officials are required to sit with
the patient and their families when a medical accident occurs so that they can look at the situation in