Crisis Leadership

by Benjie Oliveros

President Benigno Aquino III finally visited affected provinces in Central Luzon more than a week after typhoon Pedring devastated Luzon and inundated the region, with the help, of course, of private corporations managing dams in the region. His visit did not even come as an afterthought; worse, it was done after the Aquino administration received a lot of flak for the president’s refusal to leave the confines of Malacañang to visit the region, which is still suffering from a flood a week after the typhoon.

Malacañang has been scrambling to look for reasons to justify President Aquino’s absence in the wake of the typhoons. Malacañang spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said President Aquino is not fond of photo-ops. Later he said the president has a different style from his predecessors.

Yesterday, President Aquino tried to hit back at those who criticized him by calling them an “industry of critics.” He portrayed himself as in a damn if you do, damn if you don’t situation: “Nung dumalaw ako sa Marikina at Malabon kini-criticize nila kung bakit ako dumadalaw dun, nag-papapogi. E nung hindi naman ako nakikita, nasaan ako.”

He also said since the government is well-prepared, there is no need for him to be in command; he admonished those who criticized his absence to just look at the results and compared his administration’s response to that of the Arroyo administration.

Those were a lot of justifications but all have missed the point.

A leader, especially in times of crisis, must be able to combine general policies and standard operating procedures with concrete guidance. Typhoons have been hitting the country every year and yet the magnitude and the type of its impact on the people would always be different. This is where concrete guidance would come in. And concrete guidance by the president could not be given if he just relies on reports and is not familiar with the situation on the ground – which he could do by visiting a sampling of provinces and areas – and has heard the stories and needs from the affected people themselves.

Second, a leader must be able to combine unified leadership with delegation of responsibilities. Sure, the different line agencies and local government units concerned know what their responsibilities are but are they performing it well? Who is in a position to admonish and redirect those who have been slacking or remiss in their jobs or have been doing it incorrectly? Who is in a position to look at the crisis situation beyond the parochial confines of a department or a local government unit? Who has the power to muster the resources of the national government to direct it toward a priority effort?

And I thought the Aquino government has already learned a lesson from the Luneta hostage taking tragedy. During the height of the hostage taking incident then, the president declared it as a local situation and must be handled by the local officials concerned. The Department of Interior and Local Government turned the matter over to the city government and the Philippine National Police, in turn, delegated it to the Manila police. The result was a national embarrassment and the tragedy, which resulted from it, turned into a national, nay international concern.

Third, in times of crisis, a leader must show his concern for the people to reassure them that the government is addressing their problems. He should be seen and heard and should take the time to talk and listen to the affected people to learn from their experiences and to know their urgent needs.

But what did President Aquino do during his visit? He shook hands with the people and hurriedly went to a meeting of local government officials. That is photo-ops.

I guess the Aquino administration needs no reminding that when a whole municipality is hit by a crisis situation, it automatically becomes a provincial concern because its impact is on the whole province; if a whole province is affected, it automatically becomes a regional concern; and if a whole region is affected, the impact is on the whole country.

These are still without regard to the nature of the issue. For example, the Luneta hostage taking incident affected only a small part of the city, but it involved foreign tourists and reveals the capabilities, or the lack of it, of the police force and the extent of corruption in the country.

Especially since the problem of people’s vulnerabilities have not yet been effectively addressed, it behooves the government to learn from the country and the people’s experiences whenever a typhoon or any other natural calamity devastates the country.

This is not contrary to but rather an imperative of crisis leadership.

Another way of looking at crisis leadership was expounded by Gene Klann in his book Crisis Leadership: “Nothing tests a leader like a crisis. The highly charged, dramatic events surrounding a crisis profoundly affect the people in an organization and can even threaten the organization’s survival. But there are actions a leader can take before, during, and after a crisis to effectively reduce the duration and impact of these extremely difficult situations. At its center, effective crisis leadership is comprised of three things – communication, clarity of vision and values, and caring relationships. Leaders who develop, pay attention to, and practice these qualities go a long way toward handling the human dimension of a crisis. In the end, it’s all about the people.”

In both perspectives, the presence and active role of the leader is a must in crisis situations; and communications and developing caring relationships with the people are of vital importance. (

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