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January 30 2014

Atlanta This Week: Leadership During A Crisis

Bad weather came upon Atlanta in an instant, but this wasn't the real crisis. The real crisis, like most real human crisis, is found in response to the original crisis.

Individuals, like my next door neighbor, whose wife and son did not make it into the safe coverage of home until 1:45am, after being out since the storm first hit, all felt this crisis personally. 

The national and international media may have indeed showed photos and video footage — that is actually not Atlanta, but unfortunately no one cares about this accurate technical point of fact. No one differentiates, either. When you are a leader, we don’t have the luxury of resting on technical accuracies, when real people are hurting. It does not play well.

Mayor Kasim Reed is a solid leader, and a great mayor, and on this crisis and its response, he and the governor may now need help from all of us. Employers, employees, officials, even average citizens. I for one made sure that all of my employees were cleared to work from home and stay off the road. That said, let me say that most leaders make their worst error in response to major crisis, like this one.

Here is what I would have said.

"Atlanta is a great city, and the region and state are one of a kind. We are proud of the amazing place that we live. And because it is such an amazing place, sometimes we get spoiled, and take our eyes off of the ball. This was one of those times. This week we realized that we are not a New York City, or a Chicago, nor a Boston. In other words, these amazing cities are use to major weather events. Because we get such incredible weather a lot of the time, we are not. We missed this one. Period. And we are sorry. We will learn this lesson, and we will insure that a mess like this never happens again. And for those caught in the middle of our leadership and response challenge, we apologize. You deserve better."

And after that, it is about moving forward. The public will forgive a leader, cut him or her some slack, if he takes the bullet, shows empathy, and then moves on. If they try to move on before doing this, the story doesn’t die — it grows arms and legs. In other words, then the response, becomes the new story. And people’s pain, never really heals. It just festers.

I am reminded at this moment of something that one of my mentors told me early on in my leadership career — “talk without being offensive, listen without being defensive, and always, always leave even your adversary with their dignity. If you don’t, they will spend the rest of their lives, working to make you miserable.” In other words, step over mess, and not in it. Take the shots that matter, but not every shot.

Finally, one last leadership lesson passed on to me by an iconic leader in my life. “Be careful about picking a fight with folks (in this case the media) who produce ink by the barrel.”

Enough said. 

Now, let’s support our mayor, city and county leaders, our governor, and where we live. 

Let’s go.

John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), and is the only 2010-2012 bestselling business author in America who is also African-American. His newest book, due out May, 2014, is HOW THE POOR CAN SAVE CAPITALISM, and will be published byBerrett Koehler Publishing).

Photo: Scott Cunninghaml/Getty Images