In a crisis, leadership can’t be phoned in

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford talks with Hydro Workers during Ice Storm repair work. Photo credit: Office of the Mayor

On Monday, September 10th way back in 2001, residents of New York City were preparing to go to the polls.  The next day was primary day – and the city was thinking about who would replace Mayor Rudy Giuliani at the end of his term limit.

Giuliani, for his part, was possibly the most despised politician in the United States that Monday.  He’d been besieged by scandal after scandal involving his personal and professional affairs.  He was leaving office after 8 years – in disgrace.  His political career was over.

The next morning, as polling stations were set to open, terrorists hijacked four aircraft in the U.S. North East and crashed two of them into the World Trade Centre towers.  Over 2,600 people died in New York that morning.

In the ashes of that attack, Giuliani’s political career was re-born.  He stepped up to the plate and led his city through the unprecedented crisis that followed.  He did what needed to be done.  He was visible.  He was strong and confident, while at the same time showing he, too, was touched by the horror and suffering.  He shared the pain, but he was resolute.  He was decisive.  He was brutally honest.  And, he was hopeful.  He was well-informed and he communicated.  In the darkest hours, he motivated and inspired.  He showed people whose lives had been shattered that there was a path ahead – and that there was a leader to follow.

Next time there’s a major crisis, let’s hope we’ve chosen our political leaders wisely.

The attacks of 9/11 were the most horrific terrorist attacks the western world had ever seen.  It was a crisis of almost unimaginable proportion. And, Rudy Giuliani – who had been despised the day before – became an example for politicians in crisis ever after.

Two weeks ago, the Ice Storm that struck Toronto threw our city into a crisis of its own.  The storm was nothing compared to 9/11 of course.  But, it seriously shook up the lives of hundreds of thousands of residents.  It could have been much worse.

Two major hospitals were without power for an extended time.  Pumping stations went off line.  Thousands of residents – many especially vulnerable – were stranded in high rise buildings for days without escape.

It was an interesting test of political leadership.

In a crisis, political leaders must be visible.  Even if there’s really nothing they can do.  That’s why, when I was Chief of Staff, the mayor went down to the Eaton Centre shooting.  That’s why he went to Union Station when it flooded.  It’s important the public see their elected leaders are present, accounted for and in charge.  That displays normalcy.  Normalcy breeds confidence and dispels fear.

It’s also important that politicians don’t get in the way of the experts working the problem.  Before the mayor went to Eaton Centre or Union Station, we coordinated with the police and TTC.  That’s why he didn’t go to Danzig Street the night of the shooting.  Police were concerned it was still an active crime scene.  They were still trying to make the community safe and chase down criminals.  Instead, he and I went first thing the next morning.

In the ice storm, Rob Ford was slow into action on Sunday morning.  People wondered where he was.  But, he held a press conference early in the afternoon and remained highly visible thereafter.  Some City staff thought he was over-communicating.  He wasn’t.

In a crisis, leaders must also lead from the front.  You can’t phone in leadership.  It’s important for leaders to be on the ground, leading by example.  You do that by being out on the streets.  That’s the only way to intuitively understand what’s really going on.  A leader on the streets knows exactly how cold it is and anticipates problems.  A leader on vacation has to have things explained.

You can’t phone in leadership.  In a crisis, leaders must be on the ground leading by example.

Seeing leaders on the scene instantly establishes that they understand what’s going on – because they’re right there experiencing it themselves.  That builds common ground and inspires trust that motivates people to excel.

In the Ice Storm, Ford did well on this front. Much better than during the July floods – when the most enduring image of him, rightly or wrongly, was of him, in his air conditioned car with his family, keeping cool instead of “doing his job.”

In a crisis, a leader needs to stick to the facts and be a trusted source of accurate information.  Speculation is dangerous.  If you say something, it had better be true.  That inspires trust and confidence.

Ford struggles with this on a good day.  Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly is better with details, but wandered recently into speculation and confused people.  Don’t talk about calling in the army, for example, unless you’re calling in the army.

In a crisis, a leader needs to quickly understand a complex and changing scenario, and make rapid decisions based on the best information available at the time.  And then, adjust on the fly.

Ford made decisions quickly.  But, not always based on good information. For example, his decision not to call a state of emergency was – I believe – the correct one.  But, he doesn’t seem to understand why.  He made the right decision for the wrong reasons.  It worked out this time.  Next time, it may not.

There will be a next time.  There will be another crisis.  It may be much worse.  I don’t know when it will happen.  Or where.  Or how.  But, it will happen.  Let’s hope that when it does, we have chosen our leaders wisely.  Keep this in mind as election season unfolds.


Towhey’s Take is a regular 5 minute editorial segment at the end of my Sunday radio program on CFRB Newstalk1010 in Toronto.  It normally airs at 2:46 pm.  This editorial was originally broadcast Jan. 5, 2014.