Crisis leaders are a special breed

Harvard researchers develop yardstick to predict decision-making abilities

In a report that analyzed how the government handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and other recent crises, the Government Accountability Office concluded that leadership is among the most important elements in any successful response to catastrophic events. Furthermore, leadership roles must be defined in ways that enable leaders to make rapid and effective decisions in such situations, GAO analysts said.

Since GAO issued that report last year, researchers at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government have developed a tool they say can predict how effective government leaders might be in handling a crisis. Their tool, called the Crisis Leader Efficacy in Assessing and Deciding (C-LEAD) scale, assesses leaders' aptitude for evaluating information and making decisions. They say it can help predict a person's ability to exhibit those two critical attributes in crisis situations.

Constance Noonan Hadley and Weichun Zhu, post-doctoral research fellows, and Todd Pittinsky, associate professor of public policy at the Harvard center, said they undertook the project to gain a broader understanding of crisis leadership. They explained their approach in the paper 'Measuring the Efficacy of Leaders to Assess Information and Make Decisions in a Crisis: The C-LEAD Scale.'

'Much of the understanding to date of crisis leadership is based on case studies of past crisis situations, such as the Challenger [space shuttle] explosion and the [2001 terrorist] attacks,' they wrote. 'While such studies have provided invaluable insight, because they're based on individual instances, they may lack 'generalizability' for future crises.'

The researchers said many initiatives are under way to prepare federal, state and local leaders to manage large-scale emergencies, but few have investigated the nature and measurement of crisis leadership.

Based on their investigations, the researchers concluded that crisis leadership differs from general leadership abilities. 'A crisis places unique demands on a leader that may compromise that individual's usual ability to assess information and make decisions,' they wrote. For example, leaders have less time in crisis situations to acquire and assess information, which makes decision-making more problematic. For that reason, measures of general leadership capabilities are not necessarily effective for predicting behavior in crises, they said.

In developing a specialized tool for measuring crisis leadership, they interviewed 50 government officials who had successfully led others during health and safety crises. From those interviews, they defined a set of crisis-leadership qualities. Then they tested those qualities in six survey-based studies. They used the results to create the C-LEAD scale, which presents nine statements, including, 'I can make decisions and recommendations, despite not having as much information as I would like.'

The researchers used the C-LEAD scale to evaluate leaders through two surveys. They surveyed officials at a federal agency that was performing a series of crisis-preparation exercises and conducted a separate survey of supervisors from the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

The results indicate that C-LEAD predicts a person's ability to assess data and make decisions in a crisis better than assessments that measure only the extent to which someone has practiced responses to crisis situations, the researchers said.

Hadley, Zhu and Pittinsky wrote that future research using C-LEAD can illuminate the attributes of crisis leadership, which could enhance the country's ability to respond to crises.

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