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Crisis Leaders Must Know: Vision, Values, and Guiding Principles

Crisis Leaders Must Know: Vision, Values, and Guiding Principles
How can organizational vision, values, and guiding principles be helpful and informative during a crisis? Hopefully your organization has already created the vision and values. If they have, you should be able to incorporate them into your crisis planning, and should you ever find yourself in a crisis, be able to incorporate them as well under your crisis response. If your organization does not have these, perhaps it’d be worth creating a set of each to guide your crisis management efforts. We don’t have time to discuss that here, but if this is your reality, do some research to see how this could be done. I’d like to share two short stories with you that demonstrate examples of putting these ideas to work.
The first story comes from my time as an executive at JetBlue Airways, and it highlights the utility of vision and values in defining the way a company responds during a crisis. The second example is very recent, and it comes from my time as a member of the senior leadership team here at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. The second story highlights the importance of guiding principles. When JetBlue Airways was formed in the United States just prior to the turn of the century, it was founded with a vision of bringing humanity back to air travel. I hope you’ll agree that this simple vision statement feels as though it’s got a lot to say, bringing humanity back.
That suggests that there used to be some, but it’s been missing of late. It also begs a question about the meaning of the word humanity. I can tell you that we spent a great deal of time leaning into this notion. At a very high level, pun intended, it meant that we wanted to hire great people, give them the tools and resources to do their best work, and then ask them to treat customers as if they were humans, as if they were friends and family, as they would expect to be treated if they were guests, not paying passengers.
This idea meant a lot to us as leaders, and went a long way to defining our behaviors, our hiring and training practices, our customer service model, and the way we establish relationships with our stakeholders. If you think about it, the vision statement actually sets a pretty high expectation bar. What might at first seem to be an attempted airline humor, a closer look in the context of the horrible state of the US airline industry at the time of JetBlue’s inaugural flight, it speaks to a pretty lofty vision, pun intended again. A vision that would set the tone for what stakeholders should expect of JetBlue as a company, and JetBlue’s leaders in good times, and in bad.
JetBlue’s values of safety, caring, integrity, fun, and passion were created not only as a way to illustrate who we aim to be as a company, but also in response to everything that was broken in the industry when we arrived. These five words weren’t simply five things that we thought would look cool on a plaque or a wall at corporate headquarters. They represented the way our stakeholders should expect every crew member or crew leader at JetBlue to be, and what they would know about why the company existed in the first place. Every new baby blue that joined the company, leader or front-line contributor, would be hired first and foremost, because these were their values as well.
Not because they said they sounded okay to them, but because when they saw them, they were able to say, “How did you know me so well? These are me.” Once every crew member and crew leader in the company began to perform in their roles, they were not only given the freedom to live these values, in other words, to be themselves, they were asked to make decisions, not according to a 1,000 page thou shalt not manual, but in accordance with a pamphlet that described the incredible benefits of values-based decision-making.
This was immensely powerful culturally, but it also created crystal clarity around the idea that decisions would be made in good times and in bad, in line with our vision and our values. Due that our C-suite shared at every new hire orientation, and our company would be wildly successful, and it has been. Here’s a short story about guiding principles. As the senior leadership team at Michigan Ross began to meet in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it quickly became clear that in order to make choices in the best interests of all of our stakeholders, we would need some guiding principles to inform our process.
So as we looked at our situation, then considered the vision and mission of both the Ross School and the University of Michigan as a whole, we crafted these guiding principles. As you listen to these, think about how you and your organization went about making decisions in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Did your enterprise have guiding principles? Were they shared with you? If so, did you see consistently in the decision-making process? You should have. Here were our principles. One, protect our people, keep current faculty and staff employed and healthy. That is, helped preserve access to health benefits as much as possible. Two, deliver our academic mission.
Focus resources on excellence in education and research activities with the greatest value and impact. Three, engage and connect with our community. Continue engaging and connecting across all stakeholders, both internal and external, and do our best to identify and meet community needs. Four, invest in long-term excellence, prepare to rebound even stronger so we can take advantage of future opportunities. I can assure you that we referred to these principles every time we had a decision to make. What I learned from this is that I’m not sure how we would’ve made decisions consistently and appropriately were it not for these formalized decision-making tools. Your organization’s vision and values should form the foundation of all that you do as a company.
You’ve seen here an example of how and why they can be so useful and beneficial. During a crisis, you’ll need to supplement these with a set of guiding principles. With the right combination of these three instruments, and the appropriate efforts to ensure that they’ve been communicated and internalized, you should be confident that the members of your team will know what they need to know to have a strong crisis readiness foundation on which to build.
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High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis

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