01/12/2014 10:49 EST | Updated 03/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Confessions of a Former CEO: Leadership at a Time of Crisis

It's been a season of startling crisis-management parallels between the worlds of business and politics. An American politician who so artfully swung his scandal-slaying dagger and dealt with a crisis head-on, contrasted with our Prime Minister who let his credibility evaporate through evasion.

The head of Toronto's weather-ravaged electricity company who rose to civic hero status by diving in and "connecting" with everyone so consistently from the first moment of his massive crisis, compared with the ridiculed absentee CEO of our country's largest limping airport. What's going on? What's triggering so much public passion and so much kitchen-table chatter about awesome and awful crisis managers?

The answer is simple: At a layer barely below the conscious surface, we all know and recognize the key behaviours that separate effective leaders from train wrecks. None of us learned them in school and we don't sit around exploring and analyzing them on normal days, but when crises hit we all use them as part of our rating system. Did Harper react too late? Did Eng care enough? Did Christie own the problem? Did Haines say the right words?

It all really comes down to the three classic Cs of leadership, which become so crisp and critical when an organization is faced with a sudden challenge:

Confront! Leaders are human and the vast majority of humans are actually afraid of confrontation. Our instincts guide us to avoid conflict for as long as possible and yet, when a crisis is headed our way and we're in charge of any kind of human organization, our best bet would be to confront early.

Confront those inside our organization with questions, suggestions, course-corrections. Confront our external stakeholders with appeals and facts. Those who confront in advance at least stand a chance of "directing" or managing a crisis. Those who don't always end up with some brand erosion, no matter how effectively (and expensively) they might respond after the fact. Both our Prime Minister and GTAA's Howard Eng are now having to invest a great deal of effort on repairing their personal brands, even though their respective crises may have been at least partially triggered by the ineptitude of others or simply by circumstance. Neither of them dove in early enough, so they both lost control of their situations.

Communicate! Leaders who rely on their "spokespeople" at a time of crisis are abdicators. That's a catastrophic misstep and, sadly, a very common one. The moment Howard Eng delegated his critical communications job to someone else, he had already lost half the battle.

No matter how hard he may have been working behind the scenes in Edmonton (and, given his organization's reluctance to disclose any details, rumours are now festering that he wasn't working very hard at all), he was instantly judged when he failed to be the face of his organization.

Similarly, Harper's approval ratings started to really nosedive not when the Senate scandal first hit, but when he started to avoid answering questions about it. By the starkest of contrasts, Chris Christie's simple anger, passion and directness over a two-hour grilling by the media instantly created the impression of an honest, accountable crisis manager. And Anthony Haines' daily, detailed and sometimes even emotional updates during the ice storm in Toronto connected him perfectly with his target audience and almost completely neutralized his critics.

Care! Don't just say you do -- show it, prove it and own the problem. Empathy counts for more than just about anything else at a time of crisis. Harper spread the blame, fired one subordinate, claimed he was in the dark and publicly absolved himself of all personal responsibility. "My people messed up", was the implied message, "and they should be ashamed of themselves". And look at what's happened to his personal brand in the past few months.

Contrast that with Christie's brilliant and instant ownership of the issue -- he held himself directly accountable, regardless of what he knew or didn't know along the way, he criticized his own talent selection skills (instead of just shifting all the blame to his team) and he openly spoke of feeling embarrassed.

On Toronto's dual crises, Howard Eng pulled an unbelievable disappearing act through the first three days of his airport's debacle and only resurfaced, albeit defensively, after the media started to vilify him -- whereas Haines worked the front lines, wore the hard hat, brought coffee to his sleep deprived colleagues and never stopped "owning" the power outage problem. And guess who's got millions of defenders and fans, all of a sudden, and who doesn't.

Fascinating season. Fascinating contrasts. Rarely do we get such crisp opportunities to observe and learn. And that old cliché about crises being the true proving grounds for leaders will never become obsolete...

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