Ken Wisian, Ph.D., Major General USAF (retired) presented his talk “Crisis Leadership” on Tuesday, May 12th, 2020 through Zoom. General Wisian is Executive Director of the Disaster Research Program, Center for Space Research, Cockrell School of Engineering, at the University of Texas at Austin. General Wisian is an experienced practitioner who has led large and small organizations, military and civilian, in peace, war, and disasters. As a military officer, General Wisian participated or lead military disaster response efforts for the Shuttle Columbia crash and multiple hurricanes.

Leadership, including crisis leadership, is learned. There are no “born” leaders – you can lead from any position and any background. If you stick to it and learn the basics, you can surprise yourself and what you can achieve! A key to good leadership is not to panic, which is easier said than done, General Wisian says. Panic and despair are contagious, and fear can spread when a leader is not calm. Your core values should be succinct and reflexive, for example, the USAF’s core values are “Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence In All We Do.” Find what works for you!

General Wisian has multiple leadership principles. The first one is to take care of people / get the mission done. Making sure your team is well-rested when working through a large crisis, for example, is a great way to take care of people. Being safe is General Wisian’s second principle; even in combat there are safety standards, and a leader’s first responsibility is their people’s safety. If you’re asking people to do something, it is your responsibility to make sure they get it done in the safest way possible. Lastly, have fun! In the midst of a crisis, one moment of levity can help get productivity up.

As a leader, you are watched constantly. A key part of being trustworthy is your honesty: remember that you are human, and you must own your mistakes and give credit where credit is due.  Leading by example shows those who follow you the correct way things should be done.

Communication is a huge field, so just be yourself! General Wisian explains that in times of crisis, you are not that good an actor, and insincerity will cripple you. Communication is a two-way street, so listen as much as you talk. Great communicators are brief – one of the most famous speeches ever told was presented by President Abraham Lincoln titled the “Gettysburg Address”. No one remembers the other guy who spoke for hours before him!

Never stop learning and keep your eyes and ears open. Study in a way that works for you: reading, watching, or listening. You can learn just as much from bad leaders as you can from good leaders, even if it is learning what you would not like to do as a leader. Find a mentor or hero you can aspire to, fictional or non-fictional.

Preparation and planning is the most important phase of leadership. Quoting Field Marshal Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” When considering communication, how do you get essential information out? Consider geography and other outside duties. The less you have to figure out at the moment, the better off you are!

Under stress, you will react instinctively… make sure those instincts come from knowledge and training.  You will have to make decisions under uncertainty, especially under a time-crunch, and you might not have all of the complete information. In times of uncertainty, if you have to be hard and abrupt with people, there’s never a need to be disrespectful.

One of the most important things to remember in being a leader is to not forget to take care of yourself. Being in command, in any way, can be a burden. Rest when you need to, and if needed, have someone who will tell you when to rest. Those who follow you will thank you.


Watch the questions asked here:

Leading While Not The Boss

  • How do you lead a group or business when you aren’t the boss? Learn what makes an effective leader and start becoming a leader in every situation you encounter with some advice discussed in this clip!

How to Be Concise in Communication

  • Learn how to communicate in a more effective and concise way with some tips discussed in this short clip. Start Learning how to lead and communicate with those in your business or industry!

Balance People and Mission

  • Learn how to find a balance between people’s wants and your mission or company goals. This short clip discusses how you can find this sweet spot in leadership!

Leading in Silent Organization During Crisis

  • How do you lead in an organization that can’t contribute to helping in a crisis? Learn some tips on how to continue growing your business in a crisis and set yourself up for successful leadership!



Written by Hannah Watson



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