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Arjen Boin Leiden University Paul 't Hart Utrecht University Public Leadership in Times of Crisis: Mission Impossible?

"What Makes a Public Leader?" Based on the e-Activity articles, please respond to the following:


•Analyze how the articles shed light on the paradigm shift in our definition of a public leader.
•Speculate and explain how the models and/or theories of leadership have influenced public leaders during the Carter, Clinton, Bush, and now Obama administrations
544 Public Administration Review • September/October 2003, Vol. 63, No. 5 Arjen Boin Leiden University Paul ‘t Hart Utrecht University Public Leadership in Times of Crisis: Mission Impossible? Crisis management (prevention, preparedness, response, and reconstruction) is a tough task for political and bureaucratic leaders. This article documents the persistent tensions between the expectations and realities of crisis leadership. It explores the popular notion that crises provide key opportunities for reform. The very occurrence of a crisis is then thought to expose the status quo as problematic, making it easier to gain momentum for alternative policies and institutions. We argue that the opportunities for reform in the wake of crisis are smaller than often thought. The prime reason is that the requisites of crisis leadership are at odds with the requirements of effective reform. Crisis: A Window for Leadership? In the days following September 11, 2001, President Bush saw his domestic approval ratings and international standing soar to unprecedented levels. Similarly, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s Zivilkourage during the first days of the World Trade Center tragedy propelled him back into the folk-hero status he once had enjoyed when taking the mayoral office on the wings of his crime-fighting reputa- tion; gone was his image as a weary politician wounded by scandal. Their personal reputations boosted, both lead- ers were able to muster strong political and societal sup- port for the drastic measures and budget claims they pro- posed in response to the crisis. President Bush’s favorable position in the initial phase of the national crisis mirrors that of former president Jimmy Carter. In 1979, Carter enjoyed a wave of leader-focused patriotism when U.S. embassy personnel were kidnapped in Tehran; the wave crested and broke with Carter’s inabil- ity to bring his people home. Eleven months into the unre- solved hostage crisis, Carter was badly defeated by Ronald Reagan in the presidential elections. The New York mayor can look across the Atlantic for a similar anecdote. In 1992, an El-Al Boeing 747 crashed into the suburbs of Amsterdam. Mayor Van Thijn directed the city’s popular “caring government” response—victims were assured long-term support. The response came to haunt the city administration years later when victims had lost this promised government support. An ensuing parliamentary investigation in 1999 tarnished the government’s reputation and even threatened the survival of the national coalition. Crisis and leadership are closely intertwined phenom- ena. People experience crises as episodes of threat and uncertainty, a grave predicament requiring urgent action (Rosenthal, Boin, and Comfort 2001). It is a natural incli- nation in such distress to look to leaders to “do some- thing.” When crisis leadership results in reduced stress and a return to normality, people herald their “true lead- ers.” Successful performance in times of collective stress turns leaders into statesmen. But when the crisis fails to dissipate and “normality” does not return, leaders are ob- vious scapegoats. Arjen Boin is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Administra- tion at Leiden University. He publishes on crisis management, institutional design, correctional management, and leadership. He is the coeditor of Managing Crises: Threats, Dilemmas, Opportunities (Charles C. Thomas, 2001) and author of Crafting Public Institutions: Leadership in Two Prison Systems (Lynne Rienner, 2001). Email: [email protected] Paul ‘t Hart is a professor of public administration at Utrecht University and associate professor of public management at the Swedish Defence College in Stockholm. Among his books are Understanding Policy Fiascoes (Transac- tion, 1996), Beyond Groupthink (University of Michigan Press, 1997) and Success and Failure in Public Governance (Elgar, 2001). Email: [email protected] fsw.leidenuniv.nl.
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Public Leadership in Times of Crisis: Mission Impossible? 545 The challenge to “bring things back to normal” is com- pounded by the sense of opportunity that often accompanies a crisis. It is a widely held notion that crisis generates a win- dow of opportunity for reforming institutional structures and long-standing policies (Kingdon 1984; Keeler 1993). This “crisis-reform thesis” suggests that, in order to be effective reformers, leaders should avoid being tainted by crises and simultaneously exploit their dynamic potential. 1 We argue that the requirements of crisis management are inherently incompatible with the requisites for effec- tive reform. 2 Our argument unfolds in three stages. First, we set out the changing nature of the crises that beset today’s governments. Second, we show the difficulty of managing these crises in the face of popular expectations. Third, we assert that effective crisis management is at odds with effective reform strategies. The Transformation of Crises and Crisis Consciousness: Leadership Challenges Crisis management has never been easy. Organizational chaos, media pressure, stress, and inaccurate information are but a few factors that make it very hard for crisis lead- ers to make sound decisions. Changes in the nature and context of contemporary crises render these decisions nearly elusive. Certainly, the classic contingencies—natu- ral disasters, industrial accidents, violent political conflict, and public disorder—continue to menace us. But when they transpire on our modern world stage, their sociopolitical impact affects more players than ever before. The modern crisis is increasingly complex. It is not spa- tially confined by common boundaries; it entangles quickly with other deep problems, and its impact is prolonged (Rosenthal 1998; ‘t Hart and Boin 2001). The modern cri- sis is the product of several modernization processes—glo- balization, deregulation, information and communication technology, developments and technological advances, to name but a few. These advances promote a close-knit world that is nonetheless susceptible to infestation by a single crisis. Comparatively slight mishaps within these massive and intricate infrastructures can rapidly escalate in unfore- seen ways (Perrow 1999). A prime example can be found in the European food and agriculture sector. One animal was diagnosed with foot- and-mouth disease in a remote English farm and, within days, the disease had affected all of Europe. Farmers, slaughterhouses, distributors, butcheries, consumers, in- spection agencies, policy makers, and politicians endured enormous economic and social-psychological costs. A week later, the world had installed precautionary measures to resist the disease. Canada, Japan, Mexico, Australia— all were on alert, and not without reason. Open interna- tional borders permit both economic growth and epidemic proliferation, and so, too, invite massive flows of illegal migration. Epidemiologists warn of resistant killer viruses whose destructive impact is magnified by the enhanced global mobility of people, goods, and animals (Garret 1994). Modern crises are no longer confined to their site of origin. Equally important is the cognitive and sociocultural context of contemporary crises. After decades of compla- cence, there is a growing sense of vulnerability. Unease prevails, even though memories of world war have faded, communism has died, political terrorism has decreased, and the modern state has proven a reliable and effective custodian. Highly prosperous countries in Western Europe have experienced more rather than fewer disasters and dis- turbances in the last decade. As this is being written, America and the West are still reeling from the September 11 attacks and the consuming war on terrorism they un- leashed. Scientists issue warnings of many other global threats—medical, ecological, technological, and biologi- cal. The net result of these combined assaults on the public’s peace of mind has been a renewed concern with risk and vulnerability (Beck 1992). Many citizens are wary of crises; at the same time, they are naive about the intricacies of crises. Citizens expect to be safeguarded by their state; the idea that wholesale crisis cannot be prevented comes as a shock. That crises are not exclusively the fault of exogenous forces does little to rec- oncile public frustration. Postmortem investigations often unveil erroneous policies or bureaucratic mismanagement. This erosion of public trust in the capability of state insti- tutions to perform their classic custodian functions is ac- companied by increasingly assertive and tenacious media coverage of risks, disasters, and other critical events. The aftermath of today’s crises tends to be as intense and con- tentious as the acute crisis periods are, with leaders put under pressure by streams of informal investigations, pro- active journalism, insurance claims, and juridical (includ- ing criminal) proceedings against them. Leadership in the face of this sort of adversity is, in short, precarious. Leadership Issues Given the nature of modern crises and their ensuing dis- ruption, it is best to reassess our understanding of leader- ship in modern crises. First and foremost, we should aban- don the notion that crises are events that are neatly delineated in time and space (Rosenthal 1998). Instead, we need to treat crises as extended periods of high threat, high uncertainty, and high politics that disrupt a wide range of social, political, and organizational processes. Crises are dynamic and chaotic processes, not discrete events se- quenced neatly on a linear time scale. A crisis may smol- der, flare up, wind down, flare up again, depending as much on the pattern of physical events as on the framing and
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