Proactively Addressing Failures of Leadership

The following blog post was written by Dani Robbins, one of our associates. Dani Robbins is the founder and Principal of Non Profit Evolution,, a consulting firm providing board governance and operational assistance, including capacity building, to non-profit organizations.

I have been thinking about failures of leadership as of late, and not just failures but if and how leaders are trained to respond to potential liabilities (and thereby avoid the failures!).  Since I am guest blogging I will share that I own a non-profit management consulting firm which I started after have spent my career leading non-profits.  My leadership style has evolved and greatly benefited from the brilliant and strategic minds at Boys & Girls Clubs of America.  My lens has also been impacted by my prior work with victims of violence.  The combination has taught me to be mindful of potential liabilities and have a plan to deal with them.  In fact, I have two general theories, and have encouraged my team and my clients over the years to plan accordingly:

  1. Risk management is easier that damage control.
  2. Having a plan will reduce the need for a plan, and allow you to immediately implement the plan rather than figure out a plan in the middle of a crisis.

So with that, I have been wondering about the absence of reaction, follow through and planning from a wide variety of leaders as of late. Here are a few:

  • The Sherriff of Muskingum County, Ohio, who showed tremendous leadership and did everything in his power to protect people and property when the wild animal crisis happened but had no obvious plan to avert its happening, or even to reduce the damage once it happened, which he and other clearly knew it would.
  • Coach Paterno and Coach Tressel who both went down for different things (Yes, Tressel’s failure pales in comparison) yet had either lived up to their formidable reputations, the failures would not have happened at all or for the length of time they happened.  In Paterno’s case, several children were traumatized, and he could have protected them, but didn’t – either because he wasn’t trained to react and follow thru appropriately, or didn’t know he was responsible to protect children, as we all are.

Those are the most well publicized incidences of leadership failure in recent memory, politics aside.   I also have one incidence of leadership success. The Trustees of the Board of Penn State did what was right, instead of what was popular:  They fired the President.  They fired the Coach. They didn’t let him finish the season. They didn’t let him finish the week.  He went home that day, and to his credit, Coach Paterno left in a way that reminded everyone how he earned his reputation in the first place, by acting with class.

I write crisis management and crisis communication plans for my clients, and encourage all companies, for profit or not for profit, to have one.  But a plan is not enough, especially if that plan sits on a shelf.  A plan, coupled with regular training, discussion of scenarios at staff meetings, feedback loops to address issues that had crisis potential, and accountability for action and inaction, all need to be combined to create the kind of leadership that avoids failure by creating plans to manage risk, so they do not have to control damage.

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