There is no ownership in effective crisis leadership. Sure, there might be formal structures in place, but when emergencies strike, leaders step up from many places and take on many roles. In essence, an effective crisis response takes into account the need for balancing formal organizations, as well as those informal networks that bubble up when disaster hits.
Take, for example, the case of Jennifer Vidrine, who lives in the town of Ville Platte, 170 miles northwest of New Orleans. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Vidrine and her neighbors found themselves giving shelter and support to nearly 10,000 people who had fled their homes.
Vidrine was not trained in emergency management. Ville Platte was not officially an evacuation site. Nevertheless, when thousands of exhausted, hungry, overwhelmed people made their way to the town’s small civic center, Vidrine “went into emergency mode.” She began organizing the crowd by level of need. She placed a call to the local radio station and made a plea for the community to help. Within an hour, people were at the civic center with food, clothing, blankets, medicines and a willingness to help.
Effective crisis leadership, then, isn’t the exclusive right or role of a select few. Instead, it centers on the tasks at hand, regardless of who steps in to address them. In this case, Vidrine and her neighbors met the three key criteria for effective crisis leadership:
No. 1: Setting direction. Instead of waiting for a formal response to the crisis, Vidrine took charge by evaluating needs and charting a course of action.
No. 2: Building commitment. Vidrine examined ways that she and other volunteers could work together more effectively. What would improve cooperation and service? She found that clear, quick communication set the tone for her operation.
No. 3: Creating alignment. By developing a shared understanding of the crisis at hand, volunteers were able to better coordinate their response.
Although she had no formal role in government or emergency management, Vidrine saw a need, and she took action. She enlisted the help of others and turned the small civic center into a shelter. By showing the courage to do what needed to be done, she was able to rally others around the mission.