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2023 Syracuse Enhancement Workshop group photo

Humphrey Fellows Hone Crisis Leadership Skills

April 4, 2023

When Eman Salih, a public health professional from Sudan, began her fellowship year in the U.S. as a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow, she set as one of her goals the chance to visit the Maxwell School, which she knew of by its reputation for developing future leaders in public affairs and policy. She fulfilled that goal last month when she joined 38 other Humphrey Fellows from 11 U.S. campuses to participate in a Maxwell-hosted workshop titled “Leadership and Governance During Times of Crisis.”

Salih called the workshop life-changing. “Many things resonated with my past experiences—things I did well and what I could have done better if I had understood the difference between managing the crisis and leadership during the crisis,” she said of the program, which ran Feb. 27 to March 3.

This was the 11th year the Maxwell School has hosted, and Executive Education has administered, the workshop for Humphrey Fellows, midcareer international professionals pursuing professional enrichment and non-degree graduate study at designated U.S. campuses. Sessions focused on crises in various contexts—local as well as global—and the dynamics, frameworks and processes that drive leadership decisions. Participants also heard firsthand how real-life crises were managed at senior levels of leadership.

“The Humphrey Fellows are a deeply diverse group of professionals, both in terms of their country of origin and in terms of their areas of expertise,” said Keli Perrin, faculty lead for the workshop and managing director at the Institute for Security Policy and Law at Syracuse University. “But they all recognize the vital importance of preparing for and developing skills to lead effectively in times of crisis. This workshop gives them the chance to learn from both faculty and real-world practitioners how to lead in even the most challenging circumstances.”

Michael Meath, former interim department chair of public relations at Syracuse University and head of his own public relations firm, drew on some of his own cases for a session on crisis communication. “I take all the communications theory and management theory and make it practical and down-to-earth,” Meath said. “I provide multiple scenarios and then ask them to put themselves in the place of the communications leadership. We focus on what I call the five keys to success when managing crisis communications. And we keep coming back to those key points, in example after example.”

Other session topics included ethics in crisis decision making, diversity and inclusion factors, leadership personality styles, cybersecurity, and public health emergency preparedness. University Professor Sean O’Keefe, a member of the Maxwell School faculty and a former administrator of NASA and Secretary of the Navy, related his experience leading NASA in the immediate aftermath of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy. In another session, Vice Chancellor J. Michael Haynie, who oversaw Syracuse University’s response to the COVID pandemic, offered a reflection on leadership during a public health crisis.

The workshop culminated with simulation exercises in which participants applied their new-found knowledge to hypothetical scenarios.

Maka Tokmazishvili a policy analyst from the country of Georgia and a member of Maxwell’s own cohort of Humphrey Fellows, found those simulations one of the most valuable aspects of the week. “They put us in the situation to act decisively and timely, taking all possible scenarios into account and being fully conscious of the results of our decision,” she said. “The exercise really challenged my misconceptions and proved the importance of perspective taking.”

She said the workshop as a whole underscored the importance of preparing in advance for crisis leadership. “Decision making during crises and its management is not an easy task,” she said, “and leaders need to learn and practice it. But this workshop demonstrated that crises also create great opportunities if managed appropriately. And this is the way I would like to see and deal with crisis situations in the future.”

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