05/07/2014 12:35 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2014

Crisis Leadership: What Flight 370, the South Korean Ferry, and the Donald Sterling Incident Can Teach Us

Today may be a perfectly normal day. But what if it weren't? What if you found yourself in the midst of a crisis? How would you react? How would you respond?

You might be thinking, Oh, don't be silly. I would be clever, decisive and brave!

But research in something called "disaster psychology" shows that you're probably wrong--most of us do a terrible job at predicting how we'll respond in a crisis.

To vastly oversimplify this research: People get irrational in crisis situations. Whether it's an accident, a corporate scandal, or a natural disaster, we become anxious, emotional and often panicked.

Because of these very human reactions, good leadership is critical during a crisis. If we look at the origin of the word itself (the Greek krisis means "to separate"), it's clear that in such times, leaders can either bring people together or tear them apart.

Recently, we've seen many examples of crisis leadership in the media: the good, the bad and the ugly. First, the good: When a tape of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks surfaced last month, everyone seemed to let out a collective cheer when rookie NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Sterling for life.

Though Sterling had arguably been running his team like "a ramshackle novelty store" for more than three decades, Silver's swift decision was startling in its bravery and proved to be a defining moment for him as a leader.

Now the bad: The disappearance of Flight 370 has been said to have "exposed [Malaysia's] coddled leaders to...withering judgments." The world continues to be baffled by the response of the country's governing elite (and the airline in which the government holds a 70% share).

An illustrative example: Authorities knew the plane had changed its flight pattern for four days before accidentally mentioning it in a press conference. Oops. What's especially shocking is that authorities remain unapologetic, noting, "[The situation is] only confusion if you want it to be seen to be confusion."

Finally, the ugly: On April 16th, a South Korean ferry capsized on its way to the resort island of Jeju, leaving more than 300 passengers--the majority of whom were high school students--presumed dead. When the ferry began to list, Captain Lee Joon-soek delayed evacuation orders, telling passengers to stay in their cabins. And in a country where abandoning ship is a maritime crime, he was one of the first to be rescued. This despicable act of abdication is hard for most people to fathom.

So...what ties these three very different stories together? They highlight two absolutely essential lessons we can all learn about how to handle ourselves during a crisis.

Lesson #1: What you did before the crisis won't predict how you'll respond.

Prior to Silver's decision and Joon-soek's accident, there was every reason to believe that Silver would waffle and Joon-soek would protect his passengers. But when the two men's crises presented themselves, their choices flew in the face of what anyone would have predicted--Silver for the better, Joon-soek for the worse.

During his 40-year career, Joon-soek earned the respect of many. Colleagues described him as "generous" and "the nicest person on the ship." He was also passionate about safety, declaring to a Korean travel show that "today or tomorrow, I will be with the ship."

It's tempting to villainize leaders who crumble in a crisis, but there's no evidence that Joon-soek was a bad person. He simply let himself succumb to his own fear, choosing his own life over the lives of his passengers.

Whereas Joon-soek's story is an "oh, how the mighty fall" narrative, Silver's shows us that "the everyman" can become the hero. In Silver's three months on the job prior to the Sterling scandal, his focus was on mundane topics like age requirements, the draft lottery and officiating policy. And though he was seen as a transparent, consensus-oriented leader, Silver was a self-described "subdued basketball fan" who was more likely to quietly observe than "shout at the court."

Silver's brave decision was the equivalent of shouting at the court--he prevented Sterling from setting foot in the Clippers' offices, sitting in his courtside seats or attending board of governors meetings. With "righteous fury," Silver scorned Sterling's comments with as "deeply offensive" and having "no place in the NBA." Given Silver's unassuming leadership style, the gravitas of his decision was especially impressive.

The bottom line: We don't choose the moments that define us, but we do choose our actions in those moments. No matter what choices we've made in the past, we can--and should--select Silver's compassion and courage over Joon-soek's cowardice and cruelty.

Lesson #2: In a crisis, the easy decision is usually the wrong decision.

In the midst of a crisis, we tend to make stupid decisions. Specifically, when we are anxious and upset, we become dangerously risk-averse. Now, I'm not telling you to make risky decisions in a crisis just for the sake of doing so--but our risk-aversion becomes a problem when the safe choice is the wrong choice.

Let's present another contrasting pair in leadership--Silver and the Malaysian authorities. The CEO of Malaysian Airlines recently said that "our role take care of the needs of the families" and that nothing was being spared to safeguard their "emotional and financial health."

For the last four weeks, families of Flight 370's 153 Chinese passengers were being housed in family assistance centers in Beijing, where they received mass daily briefings. Then, last Thursday, authorities abruptly announced that they were closing the centers. The families, not surprisingly, reacted with "anguish" and "despair."

What makes this decision especially outrageous is that many families will no longer receive updates--the average Chinese person lives in a rural area with limited internet access. It's logical to assume that the airline's decision was cost-related--it was cheaper to close the facilities than to keep them open. Even though this was a safe move, it was clearly the wrong one.

Silver's decision, in contrast, was risky, aggressive and unprecedented. The safe bet would have been to censure Sterling's comments and fine him. Instead, he did what I call the "hard, right thing." There were no guidelines for his decision in the league's constitution, so he assumed a fair amount of legal risk when he made it. The seriousness of his risk couldn't have escaped him--for goodness' sake...Silver is a lawyer!

The bottom line: Even though we're pre-disposed to choose the safe bet during a crisis, the best decision often involves legal risk, financial cost, or short-term hardship. The best leaders have the conviction to double down on the "hard, right thing" rather than fall prey to the "easy, wrong thing."

What this Means for You

If all of this talk about leadership under crisis has you thinking, I could never do that!, have faith in yourself. Timothy Dalton once said, "You can't relate to a superhero...but you can identify with a real [person] who in times of crisis draws forth some extraordinary quality from within [themselves] and triumphs."

In any emotionally-charged situation, the courage to do what's right is within all of us--we just need to be mindful enough to make the right decisions. I hope you never find yourself in such a situation, but if you do, I'm confident you'll make the right choice.