“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” Are You Prepared to Lead in a Crisis?

When the world is falling apart around you, do you have the leadership tools and skills to keep it together? These principles of leadership in a crisis situation will help you navigate from crisis preparation to post-crisis recovery.

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In the near-windless, quiet evening of April 2010, on an oil drilling platform floating off the shore of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, the calmness was shattered by the deafening roar of drilling fluids, oil and gas spewing out at hundreds of miles per hour from the top of the 25-story derrick, coating the deck and its workers with a slick sludge. For somewhere between six and nine minutes, the crew struggled unsuccessfully to contain the jet stream of flammable liquid, while chaos began to build in the command and control nerve center of the semi-submersible ship—the bridge. Multiple warning lights and alarms, indicating the presence of combustible gas, began to light up control panels in the bridge, blaring a cacophony that added to the chaos. In the confusion, no one sounded a general alarm to alert the rest of the 126 people on board who were not yet aware of impending disaster. Nor did anyone in the bridge take measures to shut down potential sources of ignition for the highly combustible gas. As the gas entered the intake to one of the ship’s engines, it caused the electrical generator to spin out of control, brightening and bursting lights and computer terminals, just before igniting the fine mist of methane causing a tremendous explosion, destroying a significant part of the ship, instantly killing several of the crew, and starting a conflagration that endangered all those remaining. By this time, perhaps the only action that could have contained the disaster and saved the structure was to disconnect the ship from the 1500-meter pipe leading to the ocean floor and the source of fuel for the fire…but the leadership situation in the bridge significantly delayed the decision to attempt that drastic measure. You can see a re-creation of the events in the following video.

What happened in the ensuing, panicked time after the explosion is not completely clear. Because of the nature of the trauma, and the fact that all the involved parties “lawyered up” after the incident, the actual scene in the bridge has several versions. The electronics technician, Mike Williams, was one eyewitness present on the bridge observing much of the leader response to the crisis. In an interview with the US TV program 60 Minutes, he gives the following account (also available in the edited video clip above):

Mike: “I made my way to the bridge, and there’s roughly 18 or 20 people on the bridge and it’s very chaotic… It’s a lot of screaming, a lot of yelling. A lot of radio traffic.”

Interviewer: “What are you hearing on the bridge?”

Mike: “I’m hearing alarms. I’m hearing radio chatter. ‘Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! We’ve lost propulsion, we’ve lost power, we have a fire, Mayday!’

All these sorts of things are being said…And in the middle of that, I remember… ‘We got man overboard! Man overboard! On the starboard forward deck.’

So I report to the captain, ‘There’s been a massive explosion. At a very minimum number 3 engine has exploded, and completely took off the back of the rig.’

And I remember that blank look he gave me of disbelief. He didn’t believe what I was telling him.

And I reemphasized it again. I said, ‘Look, we are in bad trouble. The ECR (Engine Control Room) …it’s gone. The consoles and the equipment…it’s all missing. Blown off the back of the rig, wherever it went, it’s gone. And the engines have exploded. At least one engine has exploded.’

At that point I was actually told to shut up and calm down.

Someone, somewhere, was screaming, ‘We need to disconnect from the well! We need to disconnect from the well!’

The Subsea Supervisor for the night shift was at the panel, and he refused to disconnect from the well without authorization from the OIM (Offshore Installation Manager) and the BP company man.

The OIM had, at that moment, just made it to the bridge, and he was coughing and vomiting…He was in pretty bad shape. The BP company man was up there already. And they started shaking Mr. Jimmy [the OIM] there,

‘Mr. Jimmy, we gotta disconnect!’

And he was finally able to get the words out, ‘Yes! Disconnect!’ in between the choking and all that.

So he gives the order to disconnect from the well. He gives the order, so now we’ve got half the order that we need. But people are screaming, ‘Chris! Disconnect! Disconnect!’

And he said ‘I will not disconnect without the authorization of the BP company man.’ He’d only had half of the authorization.

The BP company man proceeds to the panel. And I’m actually sitting 5 feet from the panel. They open the panel. He’s got his fingers on the buttons. And the company man is studying the panel for what seems like minutes.

And finally he gives the decision, ‘Yes, disconnect.’

And they press the button. The inferno doesn’t go away. It’s actually still growing. It’s now engulfed the entire derrick. You cannot see any part of the derrick any longer. It’s completely in flames.”

Left without any options, the OIM finally gave the order to abandon ship (although some crew members had already begun jumping into the dark waters). As one rig worker later told the Wall Street Journal, “The scene was very chaotic. People were in a state of panic . . . There was no chain of command, nobody in charge.”  Regrettably, eleven crewmembers, along with the 560 million dollar Deepwater Horizon, a latest-generation, technological marvel, would burn and perish beneath the Gulf waters.


Crisis Situation Two: Qantas Flight 32

Almost seven months later, halfway around the world in Singapore, a similar scene of pandemonium would occur at 2,255 meters in the air, with 469 souls aboard the world’s largest, and one of the most sophisticated, airplanes ever built, but with very different results. Just having departed Singapore’s Changi Airport, bound for Sydney, pilot Richard de Crespigny and his crew of four other pilots hear two large BOOMs, followed by warning lights, siren alarms, and aircraft shaking. Engine number two indicates a fire, while the other engine instruments are giving either abnormal or no readings. System after system on the complex, highly computerized aircraft begins to give indications of failure. The auto-thrust doesn’t work. The fire suppression system for the number two engine fails to indicate that it activated. The computer screen displays dozens of malfunctions. Multiple alarms distract the crew’s concentration. “I had my thumb up most of the time just cancelling the bells,” says First Officer Matt Hicks. “You can’t think with a bell ringing on top of your head.” The Second Officer goes to the cabin to visually check the aircraft, and observes a huge gash, big enough to fit a person through, in the left wing, and fuel or hydraulic fluid spewing out the back of the wing.

The damaged wing of the Airbus 380, Qantas Flight 32. Source

The crew would later find out that an oil leak into the number two engine had started a fire that caused a very large spinning metal disk to disintegrate and fling outward at nearly the speed of sound, punching holes in the wing and cutting through critical hydraulic, electrical, and air lines. In this chaotic environment, which was not unlike the bridge on the Deepwater Horizon, the leadership response of Captain de Crespigny was much different than on the oil rig. The crew had years of training in not only the technical aspects of aviation, with constant practice of “what if” situations, but also in the human side of Crew Resource Management (CRM). Leading his team with respectful, cool-headed authority, de Crespigny worked with them to identify the root cause of the problem, establish their objective and course of action, communicate that action with each other, and delegate responsibilities. They quickly dealt with each system problem step-by-step, solving challenges such as ensuring the gear go down properly without hydraulic pressure, and calculating fuel imbalances and weight restrictions for landing. You can see an edited dramatization of the incident here:

In order to deal with the complexity threatening to overwhelm his ability to maneuver the plane to the ground safely, the pilot guided the whole process, suggesting to the crew to focus on those things that were right with the aircraft, rather than focusing on the myriad of malfunctions. This helped pull the crew together and created some order out of the chaos. He skillfully landed the super jumbo jet, 50 tons over its recommended landing weight, faster than normal due to structural damage, and without normal anti-skid function, to stop within 100 meters of the end of the 4,000-meter runway. On the ground, the incident and need for authoritative leadership was not yet over. The brakes were white hot, fuel streaming from the damaged wing, and the number one engine on that side would not shut off, setting up an extremely flammable situation. Captain de Crespigny led the crew through a discussion of an evacuation order, taking all inputs. He decided that keeping the passengers on board until the situation was under control was the safest action. Even though it would be two hours on the ground before the last passenger departed the plane, the exemplary poise of Captain de Crespigny and crew ensured a successful end to this near disaster.

The catastrophic disintegration of a metal disk destroyed the number two engine and caused serious collateral damage. Source

What is Crisis Leadership?

In my last article, I discussed a spectrum of leadership styles, from authoritative to delegative. Authoritative leadership is on the end of the spectrum in which the leader maintains control, with less independence of the followers. It requires exceptionally competent leaders, and is appropriate in situations that require extreme procedural discipline with little need for innovation or creativity. It is probably most appropriate in emergency situations, or crises, as described above. Below, we’ll discuss leadership in crisis, which we divide into three phases: pre-crisis, crisis response, and post-crisis. Five principles of leadership in crisis can help us successfully prepare for and control our response to the chaos of crisis and crisis recovery.

What kind of situations call for this authoritative leadership? Crises are unpredictable, high-impact events. Their causes and consequences can be ambiguous, chaotic, and rapidly changing. A crisis event is one that threatens one or more of these areas: lives, the environment, the organization’s mission or existence, stakeholders. The combination of uncertainty and serious impact call for a firm leader who asserts authority. Examples of crises can include

  • natural disasters
  • violence in a store or facility
  • accidents
  • misdeeds or fraud in the company
  • malicious rumors or malevolent social media
  • disgruntled customers
  • financial problems
  • hostile takeovers

Pre-crisis Phase

Proper crisis response starts with prior planning and proactive anticipation. This is probably the single most important factor in the different outcomes between the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the Qantas Flight 32 incident. The Chief Counsel’s Report on the Macondo Deepwater Horizon Accident highlighted the lack of leadership preparation on the rig. They noted that BP “expects that operating leaders create and support clear delegation and accountability. Often this did not happen at Macondo. The Chief Counsel’s team observed conflict between managers and confusion about who was accountable for critical decisions.  The team responsible for key decisions at Macondo did not always appear to be acting with a consistent and shared purpose.” Although the Deepwater Horizon crew had regularly practiced routine emergency fire response or evacuation drills, no one had ever thought “outside of the box” to anticipate such a major disaster and proper response.

The Report to the President, like the Chief Counsel’s report, identified leadership failures in the Macondo Deepwater Horizon disaster.

On the other hand, Qantas Airlines and their crews put an extremely high emphasis on crisis preparation, even above the rigorous standards of the airline industry. The company evaluated pilot flying skills more often than required, and instilled a culture of operational discipline, expertise, and anticipation of emergency situations. Captain de Crespigny regularly drilled crew members assigned to fly with him, picking complex and sometimes unexpected emergency situations to discuss and anticipate reactions.

Aviators use a technique known as “chair flying,” which comes from the practice of sitting in a chair and going through all phases of a flight in one’s mind. From the time I was in pilot training, I would sit with a poster of the T-37 aircraft instrument panel taped on the wall, physically practicing my eye and hand movements for each maneuver that I would have to perform, as well as for emergency procedures. This technique is much like the visualization techniques used by top athletes, but with the added element of anticipating crisis situations.

Crisis Response Phase

When a crisis hits, adherence to a list of five principles can simplify and standardize our response:

5 Principles

            1. Determine the Root Cause

            2. Establish the Objective

            3. Communicate

            4. Delegate

            5. Oversee and Lead

Determine the Root of the Crisis

  • Gather Your Team (When Possible) and Agree on Root Causes
    • Incidents are often the end result of a chain of events. Try to discover and solve the earliest link in that chain.
  • Beware! Symptoms are not Causes!
    • Attempting to find short-term fixes that address the symptoms only ensures long-term failure.

Establish the Objective—Now!

  • Establish the objective and required actions quickly, before the situation overwhelms the team.
  • You can’t lead until you know what needs to be done and how you’re going to do it.
  • Balance need for information with making sound and timely decisions. You may never have 100% of the information.

Communicate What You Want Done

  • The way you communicate will show confidence in yourself and confidence in the people you are leading.
  • Yelling or panicking adds stress and shows you are not in control of either your own emotions or the crisis.
  • Clear, short and easy to understand orders are best in stressful situations.


  • No single leader can keep up with a rapidly changing, chaotic event.
  • Identify the best person to handle each specific task.
  • As the threat grows, the need for the leader to focus on the big picture grows as well.

Oversee Operations and Lead by Example

  • In a crisis, everyone looks to the leader for direction, inspiration, and motivation.
  • Effective leaders keep the team focused on the task.
  • Update information. Keep the Big Picture.
  • How the leader acts determines how the team deals with the crisis. Crisis is the time a leader must be assertive and in control.

Post-crisis Phase

In today’s digitally-connected world, the post-crisis phase can start almost simultaneously with the crisis. The post-crisis phase deals with the aftermath of a crisis– repairing any damages, restoring relationships, communicating with all stakeholders, and analyzing the crisis for lessons learned and improvements. Whereas the frontline leaders in an organization, at the operational level, will normally deal with crisis response, the post-crisis phase will probably involve the top-level leadership. We can adapt the Five Principles above, along with some other considerations, for dealing with the post-crisis environment.

The leadership at Qantas only knew that their Airbus 380 was having a problem when they started getting calls about their stock price diving. Pieces of the engine cover of the damaged engine had fallen in a populated area of Indonesia. One piece even fell through a school roof, barely missing a young child. Twitter was lighting up with pictures of airplane parts, identifiable as Qantas, well before the plane had even landed, leading to a false Reuters news report that the Airbus had crashed.

Before the damaged plane had even landed, photographs of parts identifiable as Qantas began appearing on social media.

QF32 debris

Based on the tweeted pictures of airplane parts, CNBC, Reuters, and other news sources began spreading false information before Qantas was able to start leading the crisis response message.

Clearly, Qantas leadership needed to take control of the situation. Reflecting the Five Principles, the CEO, Alan Joyce, quickly found the root of the crisis through gathering reliable data. He established the company’s objective, based upon the company’s culture of safety emphasis, to provide full disclosure and provide for the safety of customers by grounding the Airbus 380 fleet. Before Captain de Cresigny was out of the terminal area after the incident, he saw his CEO communicating on CNN the objective to the public. After some initial confusion, all Qantas departments were aligned with the message, and performed their delegated duties, while the CEO continued to inspire with active involvement and concern for the passengers and future customers.

The Qantas post-crisis leadership differs sharply from the BP reaction to their crisis. BP CEO Tony Hayward admitted in an interview on BBC 2’s Money Programme that the contingency plans had been inadequate, that they had not been prepared for the disaster, and that the company had simply been making up their response from day to day. They immediately went into defensive mode, grossly underestimating the damage and leakage, apparently withholding information, and pointing the blame at other parties, including the rig operator Transocean, whose 11 men were the ones who perished in the flames. Most importantly, Mr. Hayward was slow to express compassion and issue an apology, and when he did, it came off as insincere. He made insensitive remarks, such as downplaying the size of the leak as tiny compared to the vast size of the ocean. He infamously snapped at a reporter, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I’d like my life back.”

Hatred for BP and Hayward soared while the stock price plummeted. One parody account on Twitter, @BPGlobalPR, attracted at least ten times more followers than BP’s official account, starting the sarcastic hashtags #bpcares and #IwantmyBPtshirt with damaging messages such as the following:




The contrast in responses between Qantas and BP demonstrate that strong leadership is required to get through the post-crisis phase. Besides following the Five Principles, leaders need to direct a critical and honest analysis after an event in order to capture lessons learned. Many lessons learned regarding the technical problems discovered in the oil spill and aircraft recovery benefitted their respective industries. Regarding lessons learned for post-crisis communication, responses to the Deepwater Horizon disaster or Qantas incident demonstrated a simple set of principles:

  • Be quick
  • Be accurate
  • Be consistent

Qantas hero pilot Richard de Crespigny found the following lessons for dealing immediately with the post-crisis situation:

  • contact the media
  • establish yourself as the trusted source
  • define the story
  • anticipate
  • consider providing full and open disclosure
  • shut down false leads, unhelpful rumors and speculative theories.

Recent news has demonstrated that an operational crisis is often just the beginning of crisis for corporate leadership. United CEO’s initial responses to a passenger being dragged off an overbooked flight attracted derisive comments across social media. His use of just one phrase, “re-accommodate these customers” sparked an inferno of social media responses. He may have failed to understand the root cause of his problem, and certainly established an objective that appeared to lack compassion or sensitivity to the situation.

Several social media users posted the shocking scenes of a passenger being dragged off an over-booked flight, which immediately went viral and created a crisis situation for United Airlines.
United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz’s response to the social media typhoon came off as lacking compassion and understanding.

On the other hand, Malaysian-based AirAsia suffered a dreadful crisis when flight QZ8501 disappeared over Indonesia, with public memories still fresh with two ill-fated Malaysian Air flights. As bad as these incidents were, the post-crises response of the CEO projected strong leadership, acceptance of responsibility, and proper response.

The business world applauded AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes for his ownership of responsibility and demonstration of compassion. Source

Crisis leadership calls for an authoritative, but not dictatorial, style of leadership. Authoritative leadership provides clear and consistent direction from one source, while still delegating duties once the objective is established. A word of caution: authoritative leadership can be extremely vulnerable to human error. It can consume large amounts of time and energy. And using it outside of crisis situations could stifle worker initiative and development. Thus, it is critical while executing the Five Principles to take inputs from the team and adapt to the situation. In the end, however, crisis leadership demands decisiveness, good judgment, and discipline, which comes through preparing ourselves and adhering to the Five Principles.


Brainstorm potential crises situations. How would you apply the 5 principles to the crisis response phase? How would you handle the post-crisis phase?

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

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