Focus | Top three things I learned about managing crises while in government
It is near impossible to spend two years in government without encountering crises, much less ten years. My time in government bore this out.
In the first term I was there, 1997 to 2002, we faced both the blacklisting of The Bahamas by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and the Financial Stability Forum (FSF), which threatened to shut down the second most important sector of the Bahamian economy; and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which closed the major U.S. ports feeding the flow of tourists and goods to The Bahamas for almost a week.
In my second term, 2007 to 2012, within one year of coming to office we faced the global financial crisis of 2007/2008, which threatened to collapse the entire financial system of the world, devastating the economic fortunes of small island states like The Bahamas.
In those same periods in which these man-made disasters happened, there were a number of natural disasters that also created significant issues, including Hurricanes Floyd and Irene. Being a pivotal player during these events taught me several lessons about managing crises; three stand out more than the rest.
First, no matter how remote a possibility, it is best to imagine that it is probable and make plans, as best you can, to address it. It is unlikely that any single event would shut down the flow of goods, services and people to The Bahamas, but an event did – 9/11. During the events of September 11, 2001, all U.S. ports were closed for days and with it all movement of goods, services and people to our shores. On that day, I was returning to The Bahamas from Brussels, having attended an Asian Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group meeting as minister of economic development. My travel was to take me from Brussels to Miami to Nassau. I could not travel, as the U.S. ports were closed. I spent several days in London instead and only got out because there was a direct British Airways flight from London to Nassau. By the way, there were only a few of us on the flight because not many people were flying at that time.
Terrorist attacks can bring our economy to its knees and Category 5 storms can level entire islands, including Abaco, Grand Bahama and, God forbid, New Providence. It would be prudent for us not only to consider the probability of these improbable scenarios but also plan as best we can for them.
Second, in a crisis, someone has to be in charge and in command. That person has to be decisive. No matter how many people you have working in a crisis, they need a general to give focus, direction and resolve. There is no place for a multi-headed leadership in a crisis, though a team is absolutely essential.
The definition of leadership in a crisis is a person seized of the realities on the ground, possessed with a strategy to resolve the problems, trusted by the crew to provide direction and willing to make timely decisions no matter how tough the call. The definition of a team is a group of people who understand that anybody’s win is the group’s win and anybody’s failure is the group’s failure. During the crises that I experienced in government, there was clearly someone in command and control. No matter the criticism leveled at us, we knew who was in charge and we worked as a team to pull through. We did pull through; we got off the blacklist, with some injuries to our financial services sector for sure, and we did survive the Great Recession, with injuries to our economy and fiscal position. Success in crisis demands a strong commander-in-chief.
Third, in a crisis, effective communication is indispensable. Stakeholders in a crisis must know what is going on, and their guidance and advice should be sought. I confess that during my time in government, the administration of which I was a part was not excellent at this but did enough of it to get by. During the blacklisting, consultation with key national and international players was held, though that consultation could have been broader. Nonetheless, the consultation conducted provided important strategic insight to allow us to make the moves that achieved the end toward which we were striving: getting off the list and helping the financial services sector survive. During the Great Recession, critical national addresses and communications in Parliament, combined with sweeping fiscal stimulus, enabled an almost panicked society to find stability and, eventually, recovery. During hurricanes, detailed updates and decisive exigency responses permitted effective relief and recovery to the areas affected by the storms. People need information in a crisis. In the wake of a storm they need to know how much damage was done; where to go for relief; and what will be the path to reconstruction and redevelopment. They need to get as much details as a possible if they are to be able to navigate their own situations properly.
None of us want to face crises; yet it is likely that we will. In government, it is an almost certainty that crisis will come. We can no longer rule out some crises as too improbable to warrant serious consideration. Nuclear war, global climatic catastrophes, pandemics and the like are all real existential threats to our world. We must accept that they exist and plan for them. We must also allow all our less extreme but nonetheless severe disasters to teach us important lessons about how to handle these and the more extreme ones. This I know: planning and preparation, communication and leadership will feature prominently in all disaster responses and we had better get better at all of them.
• Zhivargo Laing is a Bahamian economic consultant and former Cabinet minister who represented the Marco City constituency in the House of Assembly.