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As a terrible, life-taking storm raged across the eastern half of the United States this week, it's a good bet that a lot of leaders were giving orders -- and a lot more followers were quickly responding to them.

By their nature, emergencies are not resolved by a lot of process. In times of crisis, every healthy organization needs to know how to behave as an autocracy.

Ordinarily, effective leaders are trying to plant and grow processes for effective decision-making throughout their organizations. But true emergencies call for extraordinary responses from leaders and followers alike.

Perhaps the best example is the case of Johnson & Johnson's response to the Tylenol emergency back in 1982. At the time, Tylenol was the most successful over-the-counter product in the United States. It held a 37 percent market share and accounted for 19 percent of Johnson & Johnson's corporate profits in the first 3 quarters of the year.

But everything changed when a Chicago news reporter called the company for a reaction to a medical examiner's declaration that seven people had died from tainted Tylenol capsules. Robert Andrews, an assistant director for public relations, says his department didn't know a thing about the problem until the reporter called. "In that first call we learned more from the reporter than he did from us," Andrews recalled.

The big three networks led their news programs that night with the Tylenol death toll. If you were watching CBS that night, you would have heard a correspondent say: "When 12 year-old Mary Kellerman of Elk Grove Village, Ill., awoke at dawn with cold symptoms, her parents gave her one Extra-Strength Tylenol and sent her back to bed. Little did they know they would wake up at 7 a.m. to find their daughter dying on the bathroom floor."

In the wake of the crisis, Johnson & Johnson's chairman, James Burke, responded quickly. He immediately convened a 7-member strategy team and gave them two clear tasks, reflecting clear values in rank order: 

  • First, ""How do we protect the people?"
  • Second, "How do we save this product?"

Reflecting those priorities, the company's first public announcement said no one should consume any type of Tylenol product. Then it reported that it was withdrawing all Tylenol capsules from store shelves in the Chicago area. When two more contaminated bottles were found, Burke ordered a national withdrawal of every capsule from every store shelf in the nation. Clearly, the safety of people mattered more to him than corporate reputation or profits.

Ironically, experts agree today that Burke's quick, principled action not only saved the brand, but may very well have saved his company.

When emergencies arise, there's little or no time to convene a lot of people and wait for them to reach a consensus. Responses have to be quick, clear and decisive -- in a word, autocratic.

That begs a question. If autocracy works in a crisis, why not just use it as an organization's leadership style all the time? In fact, some organizations do -- but at their own peril.

The problem with autocracy is that it's a high-risk strategy. It relies on one person's judgment. And as we know, all of us are prone to errors in judgment. So organizations are more likely to make better decisions if their leaders consult widely, disperse decision-making throughout the organization and train people in sound decision-making processes.

In emergencies, however, time is at a premium and there is little or no time to consult anyone about anything. So leaders learn as much as they can as quickly as they can, streamline the decision-making process and make the best call they can under the circumstances.

Of course, good organizations try to anticipate emergencies and prepare for them using wide-ranging consultative processes. For example, when first responders are alerted to an emergency, there's no time to prepare. That's why they spend so much time anticipating and preparing for emergencies by simulating them and training everyone how to be respond effectively to a host of contingencies.

Good organizations also carefully and critically track their emergency decisions, making rapid adjustments as needed until they can return to more deliberative processes. 

Johnson & Johnson couldn't anticipate the Tylenol crisis. Yet, in one sense it was prepared for the crisis because it had clear values embodied by Burke's charge that the company's first concern was protecting people.

It also took steps to continue monitoring the crisis and gave people opportunities for feedback as events unfolded. 

The lesson for us? It's important that we don't confuse S3 Jesus-like Leadership with slow, deliberative, consensus-based decision-making under all circumstances. 

When time permits, of course, that's the best way to proceed. But when emergencies arise, autocracy may be the only option that offers any hope of a good outcome. When that's the case, good leaders step up, accept accountability and act decisively. 

Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

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