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Do You Have The Moxie To Be A Crisis Leader?

Do You Have the Moxie to Be a Crisis Leader?

During this extraordinary time, many business leaders are simultaneously enduring two major crises – the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and the very strong possibility of losing their businesses – a perfect storm. Many simply need an empathetic ear and a little reassurance as they try to maintain control and weather the storm.

Many of these emotional conversations are connected to a timeless chapter of The Art of Crisis Leadership, a book published by Rob Weinhold, our chief executive. Chapter seven of the book highlights how one amazing leader managed his life when an unexpected crisis, which could not have been predicted or anticipated – and one that he was not responsible for, brought about life-changing approaches and opportunity.

We’re sharing it because we believe it can help, just a little, during this uncertain time.  If you are searching for solid content to post on your web site or social media pages, we encourage you to post this as a way to bring some encouragement and inspiration to others who may be struggling in the midst of this global pandemic.

The Art of Crisis Leadership, Chapter Seven:

Early one morning in 2002, when I was working at the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention in Towson, Maryland, I stopped by to see the boss.

After knocking lightly on his office door, I let myself in.

But this time, Stephen P. Amos wasn’t sitting at his desk as usual.

Instead, I found him sprawled on the floor with his eyes closed, suffering from an excruciating migraine attack.

Given what Stephen was going through at the time, the fact he was enduring skull-splitting headaches was hardly shocking.

That year, soon after taking over at GOCCP, a little-known state agency that provided access to federal and state grant funds to improve public safety, Stephen’s world had turned upside down.

Out of nowhere, he found himself at the center of a high-profile public corruption probe, wrongly accused of improperly using grant money for administrative purposes. As a former law enforcement officer and U.S. Justice Department official, Amos had never been under investigation, for any reason. And, based on who I knew Amos to be at his core, he would find it repugnant to subscribe to any wrongdoing (no matter the toll) if he felt he or his team were operating ethically and legally. 

 Since the GOCCP was overseen by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a Democrat in the midst of a heated race for governor against Republican Robert L. Ehrlich, many suspected a political motive behind the charges.

Townsend, in fact, called the probe, led by Republican U.S. Attorney Thomas DiBiagio, “political garbage.”

Nevertheless, it would drag on for another three years until federal prosecutors suddenly dropped their indictment of Amos in 2005, citing an obscure legal opinion they claimed would have made it difficult to win a conviction.

Thus, ended one of the most painful ordeals I have ever seen a colleague go through—a man I knew to be of the highest moral character, a man who had been unfairly targeted and was innocent of even the slightest wrongdoing.

But in the months that the investigation dogged him, I also watched Amos continue to perform superbly at his job, put the well-being of his worried and dispirited staff above his own and deliver one of the most inspiring examples of crisis leadership I’ve ever seen.

“A lot of tears, a lot of pain,” Stephen said of that difficult time when we met not long ago for drinks and dinner.

Before the crisis hit, he continued, “a lot of my decision-making had been about what was in my best interest (and for) my career path. But I soon came to realize it was no longer about me.

“I realized I had a much bigger responsibility. I had to start thinking about the larger team, how to bring them together, how to communicate that there was a future, that the sky’s not going to fall and you’re not going to crumble.”

The first hint of trouble came in early 2002, as Maryland’s gubernatorial campaign entered its final crucial stages. Amos began to hear rumors of a possible federal investigation into the GOCCP.

One day around that time, I received an odd phone call from Stephen.

“Rob, we’re friends, right?” he asked with a slight chuckle.

“Of course we are,” I said.

“Well,” he went on, “do you have any idea why the FBI is in my office?”

At first, he professed not to be overly concerned. The investigation, he was told by his superiors, was a fishing expedition, undoubtedly motivated by politics. He assumed the feds would ask a few questions about a grantee, someone who had gotten funding from the GOCCP, and then the whole thing would go away.

“I remember talking to the staff and telling them: ‘There’s been Democrats in office since (former Republican Gov. Spiro T.) Agnew,’” he recalled. “There’s gonna be no change in parties, everybody’s got career jobs here.

“See, I didn’t face the reality of it at first,” Amos continued. “I was oblivious to these kinds of political shenanigans. That’s a big lesson: face reality.”

As the probe dragged on and members of the administration began distancing themselves from him, Stephen realized he had misread the seriousness of the situation.

Worried and feeling alienated, he reached out to a small number of confidantes—I was honored to be one of them—to help keep his spirits up, strategize and crisis lead during an incredibly difficult time. He also eschewed the standard advice about not saying anything to the media.

Instead, once “an anonymous source” leaked to the press that a probe was underway, we invited The Baltimore Sun and the other regional media outlets to go through the office files and see for themselves if there was any evidence of corruption.

The tactic worked brilliantly. Soon, editorials began appearing in The Sun, questioning DiBiagio’s motives, one stating: “…it’s tough to know right now if he is pursuing credible allegations of political corruption or has embarked on a fishing expedition.”

The Ehrlich campaign, however, continued running political commercials that showed a   prison cell door ominously slamming shut and a narrator asking if Maryland voters wanted another four years of a Democratic administration.

 Subtle these ads weren’t. No one could forget that the state crime office was under investigation.

Then, for a while, the investigation seemed to languish. Ehrlich won the election and took office in January. But with The Sun still asking to see evidence of corruption (if any existed) the case was resurrected.

The Washington Post, in the meantime, was pounding the GOCCP in a series of scathing articles hinting that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Stephen Amos were co-conspirators, misusing money that should have been going for crime prevention to pay for political tasks or non-existent staff.

The feds kept hammering away at Stephen, too, hoping he’d crack under the pressure and admit to wrongdoing.

“I could have taken a deal very early on,” he said. “They offered me: ‘Stephen, just give up Kathleen and you’ll be free and clear of all this.’ And I said: ‘That ain’t gonna happen. There’s nothing here. You’re going to have to show me what’s a crime.’”

In the midst of all this, though he tried bravely not to show it, Stephen was spiraling downward. A talk with an old mentor at his previous job at the U.S. Department of Justice gave him an emotional lift and helped him change his attitude significantly.

“He said: ‘You know, Stephen, you’re gonna have to put on a game face here. You look like you just lost your whole family.’ And he talked to me about compartmentalization. ‘No matter what you’re doing or what you’re thinking,’ he said, ‘the staff will only define it through the reality of you as a leader.’”

While still torn-up emotionally, with his marriage crumbling and a child with a disability at home, Stephen somehow came to work every day and projected an upbeat manner. He knew the mission and integrity of the office was larger than himself, and that he needed to focus on that.

There were times I saw him being incredibly angry and frustrated behind closed doors. But he always managed to pull himself together before facing the staff, because he understood that his organization would follow his lead. The “Shadow of a Leader” concept was never more evident than at GOCCP during this time. The concept basically means that leaders can strongly influence the perceptions, behaviors and actions of those within their reporting stream—those around them. Stephen did this very favorably.

Throughout his time at the GOCCP, Stephen worked with transparency and held regular meetings with his staff, briefing them on what he knew about the investigation, listening to their concerns and keeping their spirits up.

“I think that helped a lot because people saw I was up front,” he recalled. “I’m telling it like it is. As hard as that was, it gave me a sense of purpose every day.”

Where weaker leaders might have bailed and quit, Stephen continued to hold himself and his staff accountable to advance the mission and get the work done.

But with Ehrlich sworn in as governor, the inevitable became reality. In the first week of February 2003, Stephen and six others at the agency were fired.

Stephen was not shocked by his dismissal as government can be a very transient road at the highest levels. He continued to protest that he had done nothing wrong and that nothing improper had occurred at the agency. Nevertheless, a little over a year later, he was indicted on charges of misusing the GOCCP’s grant money.

On March 29, 2004, on perhaps the lowest day of his life, he was arraigned in the U.S. District Court in Baltimore and pleaded not guilty to charges that he misappropriated $6.3 million in grant money, which the government alleged had paid for former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s staff.

“That was a very traumatic day for me,” Stephen recalled. “I remember so clearly standing in front of the judge and nobody there would (look) at my family. And I remember feeling so alone.”

Yet it was also another defining event in the long, sad saga that had consumed him for so many months.

“I remember that as a time that I stood up in front of a federal judge in a federal courthouse and said ‘I am not guilty and I don’t accept these charges,’” he said proudly. “And it was one of those life-changing moments you’ll never forget. Because I knew then that I was betting on the system and my integrity to carry me through the process versus what could have been a 30-year sentence.”

He was not required to post bail that day and was released on his own recognizance. Yet on the ride home, a single terrifying thought played on a continuous loop in his head: Who’s gonna raise my son if I go to jail?

“(Then) I remember going home and my son was still at the babysitter’s,” he said. “I crawled into bed with my suit on. And I remember waking up in the fetal position and thinking: My God, it can’t get worse than this!”

For two more years, Stephen lived with the indictment hanging over his head, unable to land another job with his legal status in limbo. However, he was able to use his entrepreneurial spirit and drive some monies to his family through start-up business ventures. He is a very smart, resilient man.

However, the toll on his personal life was enormous.

“I went on anti-depressants,” he said. “My wife at the time became a severe alcoholic and dropped out of law school. She could not deal with it. We had been married 14 years and…they institutionalized her. I had a kid with a disability. And I was being threatened with 30 years in prison.”

He was also forced to sell his house in Catonsville and five rental properties he owned to pay the bills. And after that money ran out, he borrowed from relatives to make ends meet.

“I remember I went to apply for a job at the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome,” he said. “This was a couple of months after I’d been fired. And I just started crying in the interview. I realized I wasn’t doing well.”

It wasn’t until January of 2005 that he received a call from his attorney, Gregg Bernstein, that began: “You’re not gonna believe this…”

DiBiagio, Bernstein continued, had been fired. (Later it would be revealed the U.S. Attorney had been removed after a poor performance evaluation, which came on the heels of a memo he’d sent in July of 2004 urging prosecutors to obtain “Three Front-Page, White Collar/Public Corruption Indictments.”)

The charges against Stephen Amos had been dropped. They would be permanently expunged from his record.

“Justice has been served,” The Sun editorialized, “but at a significant cost to Mr. Amos’ reputation and livelihood.”

In the end, though, what those of us who worked with Stephen during that trying period would remember was this: he was a warrior. He was the best kind of warrior, too, the kind you wanted in your foxhole. The kind who would never abandon his team or his mission.

No wonder Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, during her 60th birthday party a few years ago, made it a point to say to her former agency head: “You know, Stephen, there are obvious heroes, people who are out there who save a child or do this or that. But there are the silent heroes, the people who make the right decision every day. And they make that decision no matter what the cost is. And that’s the kind of leader you are.”

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  1. Shed your ego. After having worked at the local, state and federal levels of government, I have seen a sense of institutional arrogance creep into decision-making at times. That is, “because we are who we are, we are right and can do what we want, when we want.” This mindset and behavior is driven by people and can be changed by true leaders. While in these executive circles, I’ve often tried to make others pause and take a step back from their own egos and emotion to look at circumstances through the “customer’s” lens vs. their own. In the Amos situation, there was no doubt in my mind that hundreds of thousands of dollars in public resources were irresponsibly spent to “prove” a crime had been committed and selfishly advance careers. Because there was already a “public investigative commitment” through a leaked news story, the stakes were even higher—folks were on the hook with everyone watching during an election cycle.
  2. Embrace reality. One key lesson that Amos taught us was to face your reality quickly and stick to your principles along the way. In other words, don’t pretend you aren’t in grave danger because you don’t feel the immediate pain—face reality and start managing the facts, quickly. Passengers on the Titanic knew they were in great danger before they felt the sharp, relentless pain of freezing water—many acted as quickly as possible. Pay attention to what your senses and instinct are telling you. Hoping bad situations will go away is never a sound tactic. In fact, I’ve never known a bad story to get better before it gets worse. Leaders must continue to predict and prepare for uncertainties even when life is going along just fine.
  3. Plan for the fork in the road. I have worked with many clients under investigation for a variety of reasons, and most investigations were conducted by government agencies. During the course of the investigation/prosecution, there generally comes a time when a very important decision needs to be made—stick to your guns because you believe firmly in your principled innocence or strike a deal to avoid protracted time, costs, freedom and sanity. This is an incredibly hard decision. Stephen Amos chose the former…to maintain his innocence no matter how long it took. Even though Stephen prevailed, he suffered mightily on the personal front. Ed Norris chose to strike a plea deal and do six months in jail. While he vehemently maintains his innocence, it seems as if Ed rebounded in his career a bit more quickly, as the process didn’t drag on for many years. However, Ed is still left with a sense of loss because he can no longer do what he loved to do—catch bad guys. Think about and plan for decision day.
  4. Reinvent yourself, build marketplace value. After a stint with the State Department in Afghanistan where Stephen helped many people, he is now, and very ironically, working for the U.S. Department of Justice, the very governmental body that once investigated him. While both Stephen and Ed are doing fine today due to their own inner resilience, their ordeals came at huge professional and personal tolls. Be ready for that day. The bottom line: make your decision about your future and don’t look back—live life while looking through the windshield, not at what’s behind you in the rearview mirror.
  5. Opportunists are everywhere. I’ve seen it over and over again. When a leader is in trouble or wobbling due to crisis, there are very few that maintain a strong sense of loyalty to the one they serve while many others remain silent or work covertly to push the leader out the door, hoping they can sit in the big chair one day soon. When you are embroiled in crisis, it can be a very lonely, thankless road – you become a perceived liability to others who are not willing to embrace the risk, even though you may be 100% in the right. The DNA of the opportunist is such that their loyalty is stalwart as long as it is politically expedient to do so and ultimately advantages them and their careers. These are the wolves in sheep’s clothing. Know who the wolves are and remove them from your camp – they are only there to facilitate your demise. 

While the scourge of this pandemic continues to impact communities across the globe with a velocity we’ve never experienced, we can find absolute strength in one another and our higher power. Treat one another with a strong sense of grace, understanding and love as everyone handles crisis differently – we are all being pressure-tested. Crisis is opportunity. Lastly, we can all learn from Stephen as he ultimately chose to shed his ego and embrace reality. If we start there, we can use our platforms, no matter how big or small, to positively impact the world around us.

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