When Collective Vision is Critical in a Crisis

Sam Rainer

April 20, 2012

One of the most difficult calls in leadership is deciding how many people to pull into important, timely decisions during a crisis. Decisive leaders tend to react swiftly, making unilateral decisions. Some leaders are made to guide people through emergencies, taking the bull by the horns (or the bull horn) and charging forward so everyone else can follow.

Not all crises, however, necessitate this style of leadership.

For example, a recent WSJ article discussed how two cities—Joplin, MO and Tuscaloosa, AL—are recovering from devastating tornados. Both experienced horrible disasters. Both cities quickly formulated plans to rebuild. However, Joplin’s plan is succeeding while Tuscaloosa lags. Why?

Tuscaloosa utilized the disaster as an opportunity to create a “showpiece” of “unique neighborhoods” all anchored by “village centers.” Brilliant. Impressive. Progressive. Why didn’t it work? The plan was created by the city council—top-down leadership decisions were made leaving out the people who would actually do the rebuilding. Complex zoning restrictions designed to create the showpiece hindered actual development.

Joplin, on the other hand, lifted zoning restrictions. City officials backed away and let the people rebuild. One Joplin resident was quoted in the WSJ article: “When you have the magnitude of that disaster, really the old ways of doing things are suspended for a while until you create whatever normal is. . . . The government was realistic to know that there is a period of time when common sense, codes and laws that are in place to protect people are suspended for the sake of the greater good.” It was a collective vision that got homes rebuilt and people working again.

Some crises require quick decisions by leaders. The hours after a tornado hit are times for bull-horns and unilateral decisions. The months of rebuilding, however, involve a collective vision of the people.

There are times when the ideal is not the ideal. As a leader, you may know best. You may know how to rebuild after a crisis better than anyone else. Don’t be tempted by unattainable ideals—ideals become hurdles to the real solution when they are not attainable.

Top-down leadership may feel speedy in a disaster, but it will slow down rebuilding efforts. The priority is to rebuild after a disaster, not rebrand. By focusing on what could be, you may end up neglecting the present reality of rebuilding from the rubble.

One comment on “When Collective Vision is Critical in a Crisis”

  1. Josh Hunt says:

    I’d say we do better to include more people rather than less.

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