REJ CORTEZ TORRECAMPO
PCEDS COVID-19 Research Group
Leadership + Organizational Culture: Finding the Formula for Crisis Leadership
by Rej Cortez Torrecampo, Acting Assistant Director, PCEDS
On 29 April 2020, the Philippine Center of Excellence in Defense, Development, and Security (PCEDS) hosted its first PCEDS Strategic Analysis (PSA) Webinar entitled “An In-depth Analysis of Crisis Management of the Philippines”. The lead discussants were Col. Rannie Sevilla INF(GSC) who is a member of the current class of MNSA, and Atty. Lesley Cordero of World Bank. The proceedings of the webinar is available here.
The COVID-19 global pandemic is not only a test of the capacity and responsiveness of our public health system, but it also puts to the test our institutional capacities to respond to the crisis, and the kind of leaders that we have. In our recently concluded pilot webinar on crisis management of the Philippines, important insights on crisis leadership emerged from the discussion led by Atty. Lesley Cordero and Col. Rannie Sevilla. Their insights are, in one way or another, weaved into this short article, which emphasizes the role of leadership and organizational culture in times of crisis. I argue that leadership and organizational culture are pivotal in any crisis, as the decision-making and response functions of public leaders are important determinants if triumph or tragedy will ensue. Furthermore, leaders who are expected to step-up during a crisis need to trigger their left and right brain to be able to wrap their heads around the volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity of the situation. This is possible if we become more deliberate in teaching and integrating systems thinking in the leadership curriculum and modules of government education and training institutions that are mandated to prepare future leaders in defense and security, crisis management, and development. Of course, this is not the only way to improve leadership in times of crisis, and this article explores towards the end how the National Defense College of the Philippines can play a role in this endeavor.
In times of crisis, people expect government and public leaders to do something, to do their best to keep people out of danger and harm, and to be at the forefront of responding to the crisis. They expect those in charge to make critical decisions and provide strategic direction even in the most difficult circumstances. This expectation of citizens is what drives most of the discourse on crisis leadership in relation to decision-making, especially in today’s COVID-19 pandemic as the crisis besets the public domain.
Often, the quality of decisions is greatly determined by the quality of leadership one possesses. As Atty. Lesley pointed out during the discussion, decision-making during a crisis is more difficult due to the race against time, the limited information available, and the dynamics that constrain the promptness of decisions to be made. If leaders are not prepared to make decisions under these circumstances, then it becomes a considerable challenge for the government to mobilize its resources, coordinate efforts among its departments and units, and satisfy the expectations of the people.
Who and how many are on the table are also important to note in crisis leadership. However, it is not simply the number of people who are on the table that matters but their capacities to collaborate and work together in a crisis. This brings to light the concept of followership as the other side of leadership. Though not all good followers end up to be good leaders, it is indeed desirable for leaders to maintain good followership in them, which they should practice in situations when working with others and trusting the decision of others are crucial.
Apart from decision-making to reduce the negative impact on the lives and well-being of the people, leadership plays an important role as a crisis threatens the status quo and undermines the policies and institutions underpinning the status quo. Boin et. al argued that “the cases of crises seem to reside within the systems: the causes typically remain unnoticed, or key policymakers fail to attend to them.” At this point, leaders are forced to decide whether to defend the existing policies and institutions, which may have contributed to the crisis or to seize the opportunity to accept the necessary changes. For leaders who seek reform, the chaos brought about by the crisis becomes an opportunity to accomplish the changes that under stable situations are otherwise difficult to pursue.
Aside from leadership, organizational culture is another factor that either enables or inhibits the desired decision-making during a crisis. Bowers et. al (2017) suggest that:
When a crisis occurs, the response from the organization facing the crisis can range from pandemonium to a controlled, purposeful, and well-orchestrated crisis resolution, depending on the characteristics of the leadership team in place and the prevailing organizational culture.”
What the passage above underscores is the relationship between leadership and organizational culture in crisis decision-making. It allows us to direct our attention away from a narrow view of examining characteristics and styles embodied by individual leaders, towards a broader understanding of crisis leadership that considers the time and space dimensions. We need to recognize that context, which organizational culture is subsumed under, is an important predicate to understanding why leaders behave the way they do in times of crisis. This supports the argument of “no one size fits all”, which often is set aside when we think of leadership as desirable qualities and characteristics without taking into consideration where the leader is situated in the organization and how culture affects his/her judgment.
The Opportunity in Finding the Formula
As part of a specialized center dedicated to addressing strategic change within an institution for defense and security education, I ask myself “what is the role of the National Defense College of the Philippines in all these?” and “how can it fulfill such a role?”. Reflecting on these, I realized that the role of the NDCP does not veer away from its mandate of preparing future defense and security leaders of our country, indeed, its role as an academic institution is magnified with the need for more crisis leaders who are capable of leading our developing nation and the local communities in this volatile, uncertain, ambiguous, and complex world. The NDCP, given its strategic position in government and its reach over the years, is in a position to lead in finding the formula for crisis leadership that considers the leadership style apt for our government’s organizational culture and crisis dynamics. Col. Rannie argued that a significant challenge for crisis management in the Philippines is the lack of institutionalization in preparing and managing a crisis. In this case, the NDCP can be part of that process. Through strengthening its MNSA and E-MNSA curriculum, the NDCP can scale-up its impact by producing defense and security leaders who are prepared to take on the hat as crisis managers. The programs should be able to produce leaders who can perform the five critical tasks in crisis leadership: sense-making, decision-making, meaning-making, terminating, and learning.
However, NDCP cannot do this alone. As Dr. Gloria Jumamil-Mercado, MNSA pointed out during the webinar discussion, we need a “critical mass of competent and passionate people who are willing to share new and innovative ideas about what is important, and to be brutally honest on what is not.” The intervention to solve the problem in the ecosystem requires that critical mass. In this case, partnership with other education and training institutions outside the defense sector will somehow address the how-to portion in advancing the role of the NDCP in crisis management.
Boin, A. et. al. (2005). “Crisis Management in political systems: five leadership challenges.” The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 1-17.
Bowers, M., Hall, J.R., Srinivasan, M. (2017). “Organizational culture and leadership style: The missing combination for selecting the right leader for effective crisis management.” Business Horizon, 1-13.