In the lightning-fast world of social media, being able to respond to a crisis quickly, decisively, and thoughtfully is an essential skill for public officials and leaders. The bumbling reactions of former Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and the post-oil spill gaffes of former BP CEO Tony Hayward bring to mind the damaging ways leaders can exacerbate a crisis.
Making the right decision during a politically charged crisis is tricky, of course. Complete information is often rare, there are usually conflicting accounts to parse out, and leaders often face time constraints that don’t allow for the usual deliberative process.
In March, University of Oklahoma President David Boren offered an adept example of crisis management that illustrates the way leaders can prevent a delicate situation from careening out of control. After a disturbing cellphone video of University of Oklahoma fraternity members singing an ugly racist chant surfaced, Boren moved quickly to expel two of the students and disbanded the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter soon thereafter.
On March 8, a skin-crawling video depicted Oklahoma fraternity members chanting about how they would never accept a black member and even went so far as to reference lynching. Far from just a few members acting badly, it appeared that many students sang along, clearly knowing the words. As the video went viral, outrage and protests mounted against the despicable scene. Just a couple days later, Boren unequivocally condemned the fraternity’s ugly culture and expelled the pair of students who had led the racist chants in the video. Boren’s swift and decisive actions demonstrated good judgment in the face of a crisis that threatened to divide the campus and affirmed the administration’s commitment to promoting the university as a safe place for all students, even earning a nod of approval from President Barack Obama.
— Tyler Woodward (@tkwoodward) March 9, 2015
Acting quickly can be especially difficult for university presidents, who often take a measured approach that is often more tied to legal considerations than striking a decisive tone. But Boren’s responsive leadership throughout the crisis did not allow the situation to spiral out of control. Hours after the video was first seen on social media, Boren registered his disgust, and later he orchestrated an investigation into the song’s origins, how long it had been part of the fraternity’s culture, and how many members participated in racist behavior. As a result, attention has turned from the University of Oklahoma to the bigoted behaviors of fraternity members across the country, another leadership issue that deserves more scrutiny.