Leadership : A Story of Two Crises : SARS and September 11th


Alan Yu had a distinguished business career with American Express and Johnson & Johnson, and is now Vice President & COO of CK Life Sciences Int'l Inc.in Hong Kong. He can be reached at alan_a_yu@yahoo.com.

SARS and September 11 : Portraits of Leadership under stress in Hong Kong and New York – Tung Chee Hwa & Rudy Giuliani.

One and a half years after the devastating events of September 11, which sent airlines into bankruptcy and economies into a tailspin, the world has been gripped by an unprecedented wave of infections from a new and potent virus causing SARS ( severe acute respiratory syndrome ).

Although the deadly virus has infected and killed people in at least 25 countries around the world, it is most serious in Hong Kong, which accounts for more than one third of all cases and half the deaths. It is also here that the disease has affected the economy most – the retail and tourism sectors are reporting business declines of up to 90%. It is thus in Hong Kong, more than anywhere else, that leadership is most needed to tackle the spreading virus.

Even the most effective leaders find themselves vulnerable during a crisis. The need for quick decision making with inadequate information forces them to lead from the heart, rather than from the mind. Intuitive responses render their emotional constitution an open book for all to read. These are times when leadership needs to be “up front”, literally and figuratively.

Not all leaders are naturally suited to handling crises. Some are too introspective; others too intellectual. Few will dispute that the Mayor of New York at the time of September 11, Rudolf Giuliani, came out of the crisis with flying colours. It is far too early to draw conclusions about how well Tung Chee Hwa, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong administration, has handled the current SARS crisis. Nevertheless, from the public behaviour of the two men we can glean some lessons about leadership.

First, a caveat

The twin tower bombing in New York on September 11, 2001 was a discrete event that wreaked havoc in a split second. The impact of the event was clear within hours, and the damage well understood to be gigantic in scale. Immediate and drastic measures were clearly necessary. The outbreak of SARS in a way crept up on Hong Kong. While there were early signs that the disease was new, different and virulent, there was a great deal of uncertainty about the nature and severity of the threat at the beginning. It is probably unfair to expect the Hong Kong government to take drastic measures too early, in case they lead to mass hysteria.


Personal Qualities

As a lawyer and politician, Rudolf Giuliani is a forceful and eloquent communicator. He has an outgoing personality and is not afraid of public display of emotions. He spent a good part of his life working in the system before he became Mayor. He was familiar with how things worked in New York.

Tung Chee Hwa, on the other hand, is a much more reserved person. He was brought up in a traditional Chinese family where filial piety and respect for the elders were cherished values. He only came into the system, somewhat reluctantly, after the handover of Hong Kong by the British to China in July 1997. In addition, he is working within a political system where outspokenness and candour are not traditional values. It is natural that Tung Chee Hwa does not come across as dashing a public figure as Rudolf Giuliani.

Being at the front line

In times of crisis, leading at the front is important in calming fears among the public. There is no doubt that as a leader, Giuliani is not afraid of being in the trenches and at the frontline. He was on the scene of the twin tower disaster within minutes. “While mayor, I made it my policy to see with my own eyes the scene of every crisis so I could evaluate it firsthand,” he says in his book Leadership.

Tung, on the other hand, shuns the limelight. He does not go out of his way to project an image of personal involvement. He did not appear in a press conference until well into the SARS crisis. On March 27th, he told the press, almost apologetically, that on March 15 he had gone to visit the Prince of Wales Hospital, where a large number of medical personnel had been infected, “to try to understand what it's all about” ( transcript of a press conference held on March 27th -- www.info.gov.hk/dh/ap.htm ).

Appearing to be in control

At a time of crisis, what the public needs most is a sense that someone is in control of the situation. In the twin tower disaster, Giuliani exuded a strong sense of control and rapid decision-making in response to unravelling events. He writes in Leadership : “Within minutes of the first plane hitting the towers, the decision was made to establish two command posts – one for the Fire Department and one for the Police Department.”

Tung, on the other hand, was unable to communicate a sense of comprehension of the gravity of the situation, let alone control and quickness in response. The best he could do, 23 days after the outbreak, was telling a nervous public the following : “Every day, I'm holding meetings with my Government colleagues, looking at the progress that has been made, what other areas that we need to be further concerned with. And I believe that we as a government now have a good grasp of the whole situation.” (transcript of a media session held on April 2nd: www.info.gov.hk/dh/ap.htm). There was no command centre, no “war room”, and no identifiable location where people appeared to be huddled together in the fight.

Being Visible

From the very beginning, Giuliani appeared frequently on television to update the public about what his government was doing, the death toll and the latest developments. He kept going back to “Ground Zero” to see for himself what was going on, and was clearly seen to be doing so.

Tung remained behind the scenes for some time after the outbreak of SARS. Although he toured the worst affected hospital soon after the outbreak, and must have worked feverishly to understand the gravity of the problem, he appeared only sporadically in what often seemed hastily organised press conferences. Giuliani was the face of crisis management; Tung was conspicuous by his absence.

Setting and communicating priorities

On his response to the twin tower bombing, Giuliani recounts in Leadership : “I immediately devised two priorities. We had to set up a new command center. And we had to find a way to communicate with people in the city.”

In contrast, 32 days into the outbreak of SARS, Tung told a press conference : “I have asked the Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food, Dr E K Yeoh, to do his best to dramatically minimise the number of infections of our medical and nursing staff within the shortest possible timeframe.” ( transcript of remarks by Tung to the media on April 11th: www.info.gov.hk/dh/ap.htm). While Giuliani was specific about priorities, Tung was vague about his intentions. It was as if he believed that Dr Yeoh had a magic wand.

Taking charge and being accountable

On April 8th, Tung is reported to have said : “I have asked the Financial Secretary to look into the short-term, medium-term as well as long-term implications and to suggest ways to provide relief in the short-term and to ensure recovery of our economy in the medium term and long term.” ( transcript of media session by Tung on April 8th: www.info.gov.hk/dh/ap.htm). Twice in public, in prepared statements, Tung told the media that he had “asked” members of his team to perform a task. These statements created the impression that there was a sense of detachment on Tung’s part about his accountability.

In numerous personal appearances, Giuliani was unequivocal about being accountable for the rescue operation. In Leadership, he writes : “More than anyone, leaders should welcome being held accountable. Nothing builds confidence in a leader more than a willingness to take responsibility for what happens during his watch.” While he had many of his team around him during public appearances reporting on progress and actions, there was no doubt in the mind of the public that he felt a strong sense of responsibility for the success or otherwise of the rescue operation.

Creating symbolic value

According to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (americanhistory.si.edu/ september11), “Giuliani…remained at the center of the crisis …Wearing a succession of trademark caps, he inspired the city and the nation with messages of compassion, resolve, and resilience.” Tung’s approach was bland, and he never used such symbols to rally people around him.

Facilitating Coordination

From the very beginning, Giuliani was clear about his role in coordinating response to the disaster. He knew that the Police Department and the Fire Department “had to perform different tasks and had different requirements”. “The Fire Department,” he continues in Leadership, “had to lead the rescue and evacuation. The Police Department had to protect the rest of the city.”

Although Tung’s public statements gave an inkling of what he expected some departments to do, e.g., minimise infections among medical personnel, or suggest ways to ensure short-term economic recovery, he never articulated his assessment of the different roles departments within his administration could perform; nor did he publicly show a strong will to ensure congruence among the departments.

Being truthful and speaking from the heart

Giuliani recalls in his book Leadership that he simply said what he was thinking in his first public appearance after the bombing : “My heart goes out to all of you. I’ve never seen anything like this. I was there shortly after it happened and saw people jumping out of the World Trade Center. It’s a horrible, horrible situation, and all that I can tell you is that every resource that we have is attempting to rescue as many people as possible. The end result is going to be some horrendous number of lives lost. I don’t think we know yet, but right now we have to focus on saving as many people as possible.”

In contrast, in his first public appearance after the SARS outbreak on March 27th, Tung said : “What I think important is for you to recognise what we have done from March 10 to March 27, in 17 days. We were able to identify the source, we were able to identify the virus, we were able to successfully develop a quick diagnostic test, and we were able to provide specific medicines to start treating those who are sick. And these are very, very important breakthroughs. And the fact that today I am able to stand here and talk to you like this is because of all this progress that we have made.” This was at the time when a large number of mysterious infections were discovered in a residential complex called Amoy Gardens.

Universalising the situation

According to Judy Aita, Giuliani “escorted hundreds of heads of state and ambassadors to Ground Zero” in the months after September 11. Giuliani apparently said that he told each foreign leader when they visited the site : "This could happen to you. In some ways it has already happened to you and, in some cases, it has happened repetitiously to you. We have to stand together against this. There is no justification for it, there is no negotiating with it. It is just a matter of ending it."

In the SARS outbreak, Hong Kong seems to have become the whipping boy of the international community, despite the fact that it is as much a victim as everybody else. Tung made no rallying call to the rest of the world to join together in the fight against the virus.

Asking for outside help

Giuliani quickly sized up the situation, and decided that the events were too overwhelming for New York to deal with alone. When George Pataki, Governor of New York State, offered to call in the National Guard, he accepted. He explains his action in Leadership : “I had resisted in the past, fearing that without being trained in the peculiarities of New York City, they could potentially find themselves in difficulty. It was obvious that we’d need all the help we could get.”

Fortunately, Tung did the same. He probably realised early in the game that there were just not enough experts in government to deal with the hitherto unknown virus. He was quick to form an expert group comprising the brightest minds in the medical profession and academia. In sharp contrast to China, Tung also welcomed participation from the World Health Organisation. As Dr E. K. Yeoh ( Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food ), said at a briefing on March 17th : “We are going to work very closely with the World Health Organisation and with other national authorities dealing with this problem. And we'll be very open. If there is any risk, we will inform the public.” ( transcript of remarks at a briefing session on March 17th: www.info.gov.hk/dh/ap.htm)

Public Relations vs. Reality

Public relations go a long way towards portraying the effectiveness of a leader. Honed in the demands of politically charged media scrutiny in the US, Giuliani’s spin doctors were far more aware of the need to highlight aspects of his behaviour which would shed good light on his performance. Tung’s public relations team, on the other hand, having been brought up in much more benevolent media conditions, have never learned to exploit the positive aspects of Tung’s behaviour to score political points. Nevertheless, beyond public relations tactics, there is evidence that Giuliani’s style is more suited to crisis management than Tung’s.

Giuliani’s intuitive ability to communicate all the right things that a listless and nervous public looks for set him apart as an effective leader under stress : a sense of control, being at the frontline, sorting out priorities, being visible, creating symbolic value, being truthful and speaking from the heart. Tung, on the other hand, is better at working behind the scene and being a quiet achiever.

Given that it would have been difficult for Tung to change his style overnight, what could he have done differently in the current crisis? For a start, he could have quickly come to the conclusion, in moments of introspection, that his style was not suited to the demands of crisis management. He could have designated someone with a more outgoing and engaging style to take the front seat, with him doing what he probably does best – directing operations behind the scene. He would certainly have gained a lot more time for his deliberate style to realise its fullest potential in managing the SARS crisis.

Time will tell how history writes the next pages in Rudy Giuliani’s and Tung Chee Hwa’s stories.

© 2003 Alan Yu. All rights reserved.

blog comments powered by Disqus