Book Review: The Prepared Leader

The Prepared Leader

The Prepared Leader

“Crises are inevitable. History, recent evidence, and logic itself tell us that they always happen…Just as one starts to resolve, another is already taking shape. Unfortunately, we are hardwired to neglect this possibility,” say Erika James and Lynn Perry Wooten.

Six weeks before the pandemic hit, Lynn Perry Wooten called her friend and colleague Erika H. James about writing a new book. “We have been studying crisis leadership for more than 25 years,” she says, “and we looked at crisis in its many forms: natural disasters, lawsuits, profit type of crises. We’ve looked at smoldering crises and sudden crises. We had a repository of research, articles, case studies, and tools. I said, ‘We need to refresh what we have done and create a roadmap.’”

Wooten’s timing was perfect. When they made the decision to write their new book, not only was the pandemic about to hit, but both were preparing to take on new roles (on July 1, 2020, James became dean of the Wharton School and Wooten was installed as president of Simmons University). Their first-hand experiences at the helm of their organizations during a crisis inform the book in ways both powerful and practical.

The Prepared Leader: Emerge from Any Crisis More Resilient than Before (Wharton School Press) is an action-oriented guide to readying for the next crisis, whether economic, environmental, medical, or “smoldering” (one that comes as the result of organizational myopia and other systemic or cultural failures; Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” is a prime example).  James and Wooten don’t just aim to change the way we view crises and the role of a leader. Instead, they arm the reader with specific tools that together create a level of preparedness most organizations have never considered.

Plan for the Unthinkable — Now

“Our purpose in writing this book is to give you notice that the next crisis is already heading your way,” write James and Wooten. “We want you to understand that you need to be thinking about that crisis right now, even as the exigencies of everyday life consume much of your time and attention. And we want you to take several actions that help you break free from the cycle of panic and neglect.”

To that end, the authors outline five distinct phases of any crisis: Early Warning and Signal Detection, Preparation and Prevention, Damage Containment, Recovery, and Learning and Reflection. Then they explain the specific skills needed to successfully navigate each phase. “Most research on crisis management has been about communication,” says Wooten, “but prepared leadership is something different. It’s owning that stage. It’s sense making of a crisis, it’s learning from it. It’s showing up to be your best self. It’s being resilient.”

There is great benefit for leaders and their teams in recognizing these phases and understanding where they are on the crisis timeline. As the authors note, “The key thing is to remember that as a Prepared Leader, you have agency. You can act at each one of these different phases and make a huge difference in the end result.” How to act, by strengthening and employing the specific skills needed at each stage, makes up the bulk of the book. Leaders may already be using some of these skills, but they can benefit from the deep dive the authors provide and gain new perspectives on team building, decision making, and informed risk taking.

Figure 3.1. The Five Phases of a Crisis and Nine Supporting Skills
Figure 3.1. The Five Phases of a Crisis and Nine Supporting Skills
From The Prepared Leader: Emerge from Any Crisis More Resilient than Before, by Erika H. James and Lynn Perry Wooten, copyright 2022. Reprinted by permission of Wharton School Press.

Throughout the book, James and Wooten make clear through illustrative examples the enormous cost of being unprepared — and how that cost can be traced back directly to senior leaders. As James says, “The one thing you can do to increase your odds of getting it right when the chips are down is being prepared. And you need to start doing it now.”