On Easter Sunday 1993, following my family’s Easter Sunday dinner, I received an urgent telephone call from a dispatcher from the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s main communication center. There was a riot underway at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) in Lucasville, Ohio. The Colonel of the Patrol was there and had directed me to respond and meet with him. When the event concluded eleven days later, one correction officer and nine inmates were killed in the crisis which garnered national and international attention and intense media coverage.
For some background, SOCF was Ohio’s only maximum-security prison. I was very familiar with this after spending time working as a road trooper in southern Ohio, home to many of Ohio’s prisons. After five years working as a night shift trooper, it was revealed in the bio during my promotion ceremony that I was the only person in the Patrol with an undergraduate journalism degree. Unknown to me at the time, the Colonel had been contemplating creating a full-time public information officer (PIO) position and took note of my background.
Four months after taking the new PIO job, I had toured the prison again in preparation for the potential re-start of Ohio death-row executions. At the time of that Easter Sunday call, I was only eight months into the Patrol spokesperson role. It was unsettling on the two-hour drive to the prison to think about what would await me. I wasn’t scared. I was well-trained and equipped and I knew the abilities of the Patrol. I think the greatest anxiety I had was thinking about why the Colonel wanted to meet. As a trooper, I had spent most of my career working alone and interacting with the highest-ranking person in the organization was certainly a new experience.
The word surreal is often over-used, but I cannot think of a different one as I pulled into the SOCF parking lot and saw what was occurring. The outer perimeter was surrounded by armed law enforcement, fires burned in the prison yard, and inmates seemed to have physical control of the facility. I asked where I could find the Colonel and was directed to the warden’s office. In a few minutes, I found myself alone with two leaders, the Colonel of the Patrol and the warden of the prison.
Which brings me to the point of crisis leadership- empowerment and trust. At some point in the blur of that night, while it was just me and those two leaders in that office, the Colonel turned to me and asked, “What do you think we should do next?” He had to know I didn’t have the correct answer. No one could have. It was a crisis and in a crisis many times there is not a correct answer; only the best decision you can make with the best facts you have. But that question, one I discovered later he asked many people, was empowering.
That, in my opinion, is the crux of crisis leadership. In the crisis, trust, communication, and empowerment are the strongest tools for the leader and those involved. I learned that Easter Sunday night that every person has the opportunity be a leader, especially in a crisis.