Leading in a time of crisis: Five leadership lessons from the Essendon drugs scandal

The Essendon drugs scandal has captured the attention of Australian sport fans and critics for most of this year, as week after week new details have emerged about the controversial supplements program.

Last night the long-awaited findings of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority’s investigation were announced in a brief press conference where Essendon players were cleared of doping, but club officials were charged with bringing the game into disrepute, with official charges to be laid on August 26.

Since February, AFL club Essendon has faced an onslaught of media attention, criticism from sporting authorities and allegations of serious misconduct.

Thought to be one of Australia’s biggest sporting scandals, it has claimed the heads of more than one leader at the club, including former chairman David Evans and former chief executive Ian Robson.

Questions have been raised about the capacity of the club’s officials to lead through this crisis and whether or not Essendon’s coach, James Hird, should step down.

It’s still unclear just what penalties Essendon will face, but if nothing else, the situation has demonstrated the importance of having a consistent message during a disaster.

SmartCompany spoke to corporate governance consultant Julie Garland McLellan and Australian Institute of Management chief executive Tony Gleeson about how business owners, directors and managers should lead in a time of a crisis.

Consistency is key

Throughout a crisis, a business needs to have an unwavering and consistent message which is in line with the company’s values.

Gleeson says having a single voice for the business to front the public during a crisis is a necessity.

“You need one person from an organisation or business to give a simple, clear message about what’s going on. They become the single point externally and a face for the people internally,” he says.

Gleeson says a good example to follow during a time of crisis is the former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, who was praised for his strength and leadership during the September 11 bombings of 2001.

McLellan says the message presented to the public and staff should be in concordance with the company’s values.

“Make sure everything you do is appropriate and in line with those (values) and you need to be clear about what the shareholders expect.”

“You need to know and be ahead of the game and communicating this information to the staff and public,” she says.

Have a risk management strategy

McLellan and Gleeson agree the best crisis a business can have is one it’s prepared for.

“The most important thing in leading through a crisis is to have thought about it beforehand and to have practiced what you’d do,” McLellan says.

“While you can’t really practice what you’d do if you lost your major customer, you can work out who you would fire and who you would keep, and that way no one takes any actions that you later think are silly and wrong.”

McLellan says in the context of Essendon, it’s likely the club had formed the strategy to support Hird.

“They’re sitting behind and supporting him, they’re doing it quietly and James is the one out the front talking, but they also have a steadfast resoluteness,” she says.

“It is the sign of a board that has thought it through, decided where it stands and it’s delivering, under fairly nasty circumstances, a reasonable outcome.”

Support the team

Gleeson says it’s important for the strategy to be well communicated to the staff and for responsibilities during a crisis to be delegated.

“You need to be able to share the activities, but this is where a lot of people come undone,” he says.

McLellan says if you’re a director of a business, it’s generally not your responsibility to manage a crisis, but you need to support the business management, chief executive and owner.

“Make sure you’re emotionally available. The chief executive really needs the board support during this time.”

“Make consistent suggestions and even do little things like dropping into the office and bringing a coffee. The chief executive can’t unburden on the staff and they tend to be the focus of everything,” she says.

Be upfront

When it comes to leading the staff, the experts agree honesty is important.

“You can’t pull the wool over the staff’s eyes, so be upfront and clear, but also provide an external avenue of support,” Gleeson says.

“Even small businesses can have employee assistance programs and some of these are quite cost effective and give you a range of resources for your employees. Even in small businesses these are worthwhile,” he says.

Reach out to networks

It’s not uncommon for business owners or leaders to feel isolated during a crisis, but reaching out to others can help provide emotional support and also lead to solutions.

“A lot of small business owners can become very internally focused,” Gleeson says.

“They need to reach out to their network. Many small business owners develop a good network throughout Australia of other owners… don’t take it all on yourself.”

Gleeson says having a mentor can also help, since this can add an extra voice to the equation and provide insight.


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