Erika James and Lynn Perry Wooten made history in 2020, when they took up leadership positions at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Simmons University, respectively. Distinguished scholars of crisis management and long-term collaborators and coauthors, they faced an interesting challenge, and an opportunity: applying what they’ve learned through their shared research over the past two years to lead their organizations through a crisis of unprecedented dimensions
Wharton School Press sat down the James and Wooten to talk about how they found the motivation and the staying power during the pandemic to write The Prepared Leader: Emerge from Any Crisis More Resilient Than Before. They also discussed why being prepared for crises is something leaders need to work on constantly; what they mean by the Four Ps of Leadership; who they consider to be prepared leaders, and what they want readers to take away from their book.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Wharton School Press: The Prepared Leader has been described as “a strong roadmap for how to lead during a crisis.” What inspired you to write this book at this time?
Lynn Perry Wooten: Erika and I have been studying crisis leadership for more than 25 years, and we have looked at crisis in its many forms: natural disasters, lawsuits, profit types of crises. We’ve looked at smoldering crises and sudden crises.
Before the pandemic even hit, we had this repository of research, articles, case studies, and tools. And one day I called up Erika and said, “We need a new book.” We needed to refresh what we have done on crisis leadership and create a roadmap for leaders. Six weeks later, the pandemic hit. We decided that right now was the time.
WSP: Writing The Prepared Leader in the midst of a pandemic while transitioning into highly demanding new roles was a lot to ask of yourselves.
Erika James: As Lynn highlighted, when we had the notion to author a new book, the pandemic was still not on anyone’s radar. And as it started to emerge, it so happened to coincide with the point in time when Lynn and I were both at the final stages of making the decision to join a new institution. We realized that, given our backgrounds, our expertise in crisis leadership, and given that this pandemic had now come to the United States, we couldn’t not take advantage of this opportunity. And although, yes, we were starting new roles in the midst of the pandemic and the midst of a really major crisis, we realized that we had to speak to this, both from our own personal experiences as leaders, but also as experts and scholars in this field. We had a unique perspective, and we felt like we had to take advantage of this moment.
“Failing to learn means we’re not going to capitalize on the opportunities that also manifest with crises.”— Erika James
WSP: One of the key ideas that you introduce is this concept of the Four P’s of Leadership. What do you mean by the Four P’s of Leadership?
Wooten: Erika and I have spent our careers teaching business school students, and in a typical class, you’re going to start with what we call the Three P’s. The first is profit maximization. You’re going to talk about how you strategize around profit.
The second P is people: How do you manage people and develop an HR strategy? The third P is a bit more recent and it relates to the planet. Increasingly, there’s a focus on being good corporate citizens, and the intersection between business and society. What’s not standard yet in business schools or executive education is what we call the fourth P — and it is prepared leadership.
Most research on crisis management has been about communication, but prepared leadership is something different. How do you step up and lead in a crisis? It’s sense-making in a crisis and it’s learning from it. It’s showing up to be your best self. And it’s also being resilient.
In the book, we seek to redefine and add preparation to the Three P’s so that every leader has a toolbox and a framework for leading in a crisis.
James: Preparation really is fundamental to all of the other three P’s. Without preparation, you will not be able to maximize profits. Without preparation, you won’t be able to leverage and sustain our planet. Without preparation, you won’t be able to really effectively lead and manage and support people. So preparation really undergirds all aspects of profit, people, and planet.
Wooten: It’s a foundation and it’s also a continuous cycle. As a leader, you should always be in preparation mode for the current or next crisis.
WSP: A core idea in the book is that crises are inevitable. They happen over and over and over again. And although it sometimes feels like they happen spontaneously, in fact, they unfold in five phases. For each of those phases, you talk about a different set of skills that prepared leaders need to develop and deploy.
“As a leader, you should always be in preparation mode for the current or next crisis.”— Lynn Perry Wooten
James: Understanding the phases of a crisis is key to understanding how to become a prepared leader. The first phase really is signal detection: paying attention to cues in the environment that [signal] there may be something burgeoning that needs to be watched. And oftentimes what we don’t do is pay attention to one-off circumstances. We think that’s not going to affect us. It’s not a big deal. It will be fine.
And so we ignore it until it emerges into something pretty significant.
The second phase is all about preparation and planning. Once you’ve identified ways in which your organization might be vulnerable, you need to put in place things that will mitigate, if not prevent altogether, that crisis.
The third phase is crisis containment. There will always be something that occurs that we weren’t able to prevent or mitigate. And so the question is: how do we move into action mode so that we can contain the crisis? Think of it like putting a Band-Aid or the tourniquet on the wound to stop the bleeding.
Then the fourth stage is business recovery. And this is something that I think is so critical for leaders to understand, because while you are managing and responding to an event, a crisis, the organization still has a function. The recovery phase is how you keep the organization advancing and working toward its strategic goals while simultaneously responding to a crisis.
And then the final stage is around learning. And this is where I think many leaders were so eager to have the crisis end and be finished with it that we oftentimes missed the opportunity to reflect and learn on what we’ve just experienced as an organization. But failing to learn means we’re not going to capitalize on the opportunities that also manifest with crises.
WSP: You use the word “we” when you’re talking about response to a crisis, and it’s clear that no one person can lead through a crisis alone. In the book, you talk about the crisis team and how it needs to be “diverse in perspective.” Why does this need to be front of mind for prepared leaders?
James: Surrounding yourself by trusted colleagues and experts is a really important factor in helping take the organization effectively through a crisis. When we talk about diversity, we generally assume a very narrow definition, and we think about race and gender. Yes, those characteristics are certainly important in responding and problem-solving, but they’re not all of what we’re referring to when we describe diversity. Diversity of perspective really matters. That might mean seeking advice and counsel and input from people who are not on your leadership team, but who might sit in different areas of the organization; who see firsthand some of the challenges associated with the crisis that you’re trying to address. These are the people who might have a window into information that is absolutely critical in a time of crisis.
It’s important to recognize that perspective and expertise might come from anywhere in the organization and we shouldn’t just narrow our focus to our senior leadership team who will add valuable insight, but probably insufficient information. So, expanding who we have access to, who we seek information from, is a critical part. That’s what we mean when referring to diversity in times of crisis.
Wooten: When I’m doing the checklist, there are a couple of things that I consider in terms of diversity in times of crisis. First, I want to hear the voices I normally don’t hear. So, I’m going to seek them out. Then you want the provocateurs: people who are going to disagree with you, people who can see the pros and cons.
I want to bring everybody into the room who has the expertise to help resolve the crisis. I want people who have previous different experiences. I want execution capability and I want different levels of emotional intelligence — all the ingredients to make that diversity melting pot that you need in the room to resolve a crisis.
“I want to bring everybody into the room who has the expertise to help resolve the crisis.”— Lynn Perry Wooten
James: There’s a tendency for leaders to defer their decision-making or to abdicate decision-making to people who are deemed to be “the expert.” Depending on the nature of the crisis, if there are legal matters to be considered, it is very tempting for a leader to go to general counsel and then just do whatever he or she says. And it’s important to gain the perspective of the general counsel for that legal information. But as the leader, you have a much fuller view of the organization. Legal perspective is just one perspective that you have to take into consideration. You can’t assume that one particular expert is going to have everything you need to respond to this crisis.
WSP: In the book, you share these critical insights, but you also flesh them out with examples. Who, for you, have been examples of prepared leaders in recent years?
Wooten: One of my favorites is Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors. She has really exemplified prepared leadership. She started her CEO-ship with a product recall. Right away she communicated. She came up with the solution. She put safety first. She used the diversity of her teams.
In the pandemic, she really stepped up for people, profits, and planet, using prepared leadership as a foundation. She shifted GM plants away from making cars to making ventilators and masks, putting people ahead of profit in a sense. And even in the midst of this crisis, she’s been very intentional about rethinking GM strategy. Initially, she focused a lot on trucks and SUVs, but now her strategic commitment to the planet is changing and moving towards sustainability and electric cars. She’s managed in this crisis, but she’s kept an eye on profitability in the longer term. Then there’s her HR strategy and the way she’s considering the changing world of work. She’s been thoughtful about running manufacturing plants and supporting staff in the context of flexible work schedules. For me, she’s a prepared leader in the pandemic era.
James: I think the moment I realized that the pandemic was something that was going to be an experience that none of us ever had before, was when Adam Silver, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, canceled a basketball game.
I remember the game was on. Players were coming onto the court. There was a timeout and all this commotion and discussion. And then the referees came out and announced that they were canceling the game. Within days, the entire National Basketball Association season was canceled.
“When you’re thinking about managing a crisis and responding to a crisis, it really is about the people.”— Erika James
That’s when I realized how significant this crisis was and I started paying real attention to the decision that Adam Silver made. We talk about this in the book: this was a decision that could have fundamentally changed the course of the pandemic in the early days. In those arenas, you have people very, very close together, screaming and yelling. It was an environment in which the virus could spread so easily.
Adam Silver took a monumental, risky decision, and one that cost millions of dollars. Yet the way he gathered information and solicited input from a variety of sources really goes back to what we said about diversity of perspective.
WSP: What do you hope that a reader coming to The Prepared Leader for insights will take away from your book?
Wooten: I think for me it’s the importance of creating a culture of prepared leadership. A culture where everybody’s constantly progressing through the five phases: scanning the environment, thinking about what could go wrong. Then, once in crisis mode, it’s about having people empowered to step up and roll up their sleeves.
It’s also really about the importance of learning at the individual level and at the team level. What you want is when your team comes together the learning is always more than one plus one; you want all of your people thinking proactively about the system and scanning their environment. This, for me, is having a culture of prepared leadership.
James: And I would add two things to what Lynn said. One is, when you’re thinking about managing a crisis and responding to a crisis, it really is about the people. And if you surround yourself with people that you trust, they’re the ones who are going to go through the fire with you. They’re the ones who are going to be there through the thick and thin and help you resolve the challenge that you’re experiencing. Having trusted counterparts throughout this process is a critical aspect of prepared leadership.
And the other thing I would say, touching on Lynn’s comments on learning, is that you shouldn’t learn for learning’s sake. You want to be able to do something with the information you gather. Crises can generate opportunities, but you only leverage those opportunities if you make investments based on new information; if your teams are able to deploy the new skills they’ve developed through really challenging circumstances. Learning allows for creative, innovative ideas to emerge, if we are intentional about seeking those opportunities.