Sandy Hook elementary school shootings just last week shook America, and rightly so. The gunning down of 26 innocents, 20 of them little kids, all under 7 years of age is undeniably among the worst gun-related shootings in US history. While President Obama spoke eloquently and with passion about the need to address this issue and do something to stop such violence, he was praised by friends and foes alike, for his compassionate appeal (marked by a few tears, which seemed genuine and heart-felt). The National Rifle Association ( NRA) was silent for almost a week, and then came up with an asinine suggestion, of arming school guards, which seems to have angered more people, given the context. Silence in this context on behalf of the NRA is being seen as complicity in the crime, while Obama’s words and presence had a positive impact, in framing the tragedy. So, what is the role of a leader in a crisis ? When should one speak and remain silent? I will delve into these questions in this short article.
Halfway across the world, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India is being criticized exactly for the opposite crime, that of remaining silent, in the face of one of the worst crimes in public memory, that of a rape of a young woman in India’s capital – New Delhi. He spoke, finally after a week of silence, asking the Home ministry (in charge of security) to look into the security lapses that led to this incident. While his words were relevant and hard, the timing seems to have earned him more brickbats than accolades. While he may salvage the situation, with his calm, rational leadership, Mr Singh surely has lost some social capital among youth, who see him as too taciturn and slow in response.
As any communications professional would know, saying the right thing at the right time is often the difference between making a strong case for one’s leadership and weakening it. A leader is constantly seen as a source of authority and wisdom. More so in a conflict or crisis situation, when the stakes are high. We humans lapse into an almost primeval mode of looking up to our leader as our “savior”, as many scholars of leadership such as Ronald Heifetz have pointed out. This “adaptive leadership,” where the leader is asked to frame the situation and crisis, provide a way of understanding this and leading the followers through is one of the tasks of a leader. Some do it well, while others fail.
When President Obama said :” "We can't tolerate this anymore," referring to the shootings, he not only used those five words, but framed the entire debate about gun-control and violence in a way which may have far-reaching consequences for the future of America.
Such crisis moments call for skills and attitudes in leaders, which they may not necessarily possess. Perhaps, leadership in such crisis moments demands imagination, empathy and also levelheadedness, more than anything.