Leading Through Crisis: Lessons from Hurricane Ian
Before sharing any thoughts, I feel it necessary to offer the following two important caveats:
- My comments are not in any way intended as a criticism of the incredible response we have experienced here in Southwest Florida to the devastating effects of Hurricane Ian. The doctors, nurses, sheriffs, firefighters, search & rescue crews, medical response units, lineman, and volunteer agencies helping victims have performed above and beyond expectations; we owe them a debt of gratitude we can never repay. Thoughts offered in this article are for post-recovery consumption and consideration.
- While many of my comments will be Ian-centric, there is a universality to the concepts discussed. It matters not that your leadership occurs within a public or private organization or agency, whether you’re involved in a challenging new-product launch, spearheading the global expansion of your company, or recovering from a Category IV hurricane, the only thing that matters is that your decisions take into account the ever-present human factor. While it remains true that we plan for probabilities, not possibilities, we can do a better job at both if we focus on the needs and characteristics of those we lead.
Southwest Florida is in its thirteenth day of recovering from the worst natural disaster in its history, and one of the worst natural disasters in the history of our country. Days have been spent locating or recovering victims, restoring electricity, providing much needed basic sundries and reopening critical businesses, such as food markets and gas stations. Most of these tasks occur at the operational level of the agency or organization providing the service. Throughout this process however, a myriad of leaders and executives from government, public agencies and private sector organizations have been sharing information and providing guidance to the victims of the storm.
While it’s too soon to engage in a full-scale, lessons learned analysis exercise, we can glean tips for the future based on what is being shared today. We cannot allow the past to be prologue. Leading through crisis is a daunting task, given that executives and agency chiefs are human, and therefore susceptible to the same frailties and those they lead, but incorporating the concepts below into their leadership toolbox can increase the prospect for success during exceedingly difficult times. I have attempted to present my thoughts in alignment with the various phases of a crisis event.
Strategic planning to some extent, and crisis planning to a great extent, is dependent upon the time and environment in which it occurs. Most planning takes place under normal, controlled conditions, making it very difficult to imagine worst-case scenarios. Sitting in a sterile, well-lit, climate-controlled conference room, with coffee and Danish, makes it difficult to envision the devastating effects of a Category IV hurricane on a densely populated area.
Creating a more austere environment is more conducive to effective crisis planning. A conference room with flat screens broadcasting live coverage of devastated areas, with still shots of impacted neighborhoods, absent the typical refreshments readily available in corporate and government settings might enhance creativity. It may feel insensitive to ask planners to use this time to prepare for the future, given the complexities currently in their plate, but this might well be the best time, with lessons fresh in their minds, to plan for future events.
Speaking of creativity, we often hear the trite suggestion that project/planning teams “think outside the box.” In what context are teams prepared to do this? Parents spend time teaching their children to “color within the lines,” educational facilities teach us to memorize and regurgitate, and corporate and public agencies have their own cultures based on policies and procedures. It is within these constraints that we are invited to think outside the box! It’s little wonder that our planning efforts often fall short of reality, causing us to create the same mistakes on an ongoing basis. The quote by George Santayana is all too often true, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
Leaders might consider putting their egos aside, utilizing their critical thinking skills, getting the right people in the room based on the challenge facing them, embracing diverse thinking and rewarding creative thinking, regardless of how extreme it may seem in the moment.
Think before you speak
The old axiom is true, “it isn’t necessarily what you say, it’s how you say it.” Over the past week or so, multiple agencies, entities and media outlets have provided information regarding emergency resources available to victims of Hurricane Ian, including how to access them and where to find them. Hundreds of URL’s have been offered with the best of intentions. Additionally, Lee County, where I live, issued a boil-water order out of an abundance of caution due to damage to their main pumping stations. While all this information was valid and useful, in many cases, the method in which it was presented caused unintentional additional stress and anxiety to its recipients.
Radio and news outlets offered an endless list of sites providing life-sustaining services and products; however, telling someone who has no power or Internet that the critical information they need can be found at LeeCounty.gov can remind the recipient of the dire circumstances in which they find themselves. The impact of PSA’s compounds over time, to the point where the same message received on day one is even more depressing on day seven and beyond. The same was true with the boil-water order; it made all the sense in the world, except to the tens of thousands with no power who were unable to boil that much-needed water. The same message might have been better received had it sounded something like, “if possible, it is recommended that Lee County residents boil their tap water for one minute before using it; however, for those without power, free bottled water can be found at the following locations.” Again, it’s not always what you say, it’s how you say it! Bad news tempered with a modicum of hope is usually more palatable and generates better compliance. By the way, this exercise in crafting announcements does not only apply during times of crisis, it’s equally important during routine corporate messaging as well.
Leaders would do well to put themselves in the position of the receiver, rather than the sender, when crafting announcements. Take the time to ask yourself if this is truly the message you want to send and is this the best time and medium for sending it? Run your message past a trusted friend and remain open to their honest feedback. Lastly, remember the words of a client I had several years ago, “you know, it’s funny…we never seem to have time to do it right…but we always seem to have time to do it again.”
Be careful with kudos
Surviving a crisis, or even a challenging long-term project, deserves recognition. During my combined fifty-year career in dealing with crisis events, I took part in hundreds of post-drill and post-event debriefings and lessons learned exercises. Each crisis or drill ended the same way, with participants congratulating each other on a job well done and the obligatory slaps on the back. Don’t misunderstand me, hard work deserves recognition and reward. The problem occurs when the leaders in those events are unwilling to openly discuss the failures, as well as the successes that inevitably occur in every event. I was having a discussion with a friend of mine, a life-time firefighter and Deputy Fire Chief and we reached the point in the discussion where we wondered why organizations and departments tend to make some of the same mistakes. His incredibly honest response was, “Michael, we’ve been unnecessarily killing guys for years in the name of tradition…running into building we knew were death traps.” No one wants to be the person who criticizes operational procedures when a life has been lost. Unfortunately, that is exactly what’s needed to prevent fatalities in the future. The key, of course, is offering those critiques at the proper and respectful times.
The corporate version of this is initiating a new project before completing the current project, a tradition all too common in today’s complex and dispersed organizations. A successful product launch doesn’t eliminate the need for a lessons learned analysis of the lifespan of today’s complex projects; neither does it eliminate the need to celebrate the hard work that went into that successful product launch.
Leaders need to face the music and have the difficult conversations; this is especially true after complex and long-term challenging events such as natural and man-made disasters. Again, it’s time to put the egos aside, reward what went right and correct what went wrong, before breaking out the champagne!
Recovery as a process
Once a crisis has passed, there is often an unspoken expectation that those involved will return to their normal level of functioning immediately; unfortunately, recovery is a process, not an event and a very personal one at that. A crisis is real to the person experiencing it, leaders need to understand this important point. It’s often hard to know someone’s backstory and what they might be dealing with in their personal life, as a result, people recover on their own individual time frame. It can take hours, days, weeks or months for the traumatic effects of a crisis to hit someone; it’s imperative that leaders understand that performance issues might well be associated with an event that took place months ago. Allowing individual’s, the time, tools and environment needed to process a traumatic event can make the difference between a company, agency or neighborhood succeeding or failing following the event. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, though dated, speaks to this very issue. The first plank in his pyramid includes things such as clean air, food, water, sleep and homeostasis, or the belief that one’s life is in balance. These are the very building blocks often destroyed or unavailable in a crisis.
Leaders would do well to reflect and take inventory of their strengths and weaknesses in understanding and assisting others in their quest to succeed. Patience is a key element following any event with the potential for disrupting the workplace. Providing flexible work schedules and benefits, such as an employee assistance program, can also hasten the return to normal functioning.
Much of what we have discussed above can be found in Daniel Goleman’s work on Emotional Quotient, better know as EQ. In his book specifically geared to the workplace, he references the tragic events of 911. In post event interviews, some employees stated they planned to work for their company forever, but were now intent on leaving, due primarily to their leader’s insensitivity to their needs during a tragic event. Conversely, other employees, with one foot out the door, stated they will never leave after experiencing the thoughtfulness and compassion shown them by their leaders. I once heard a speaker say, “if you think something is too small to make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.” Little things mean a lot, they also tend to have a stacking effect. Technology has changed dramatically, things we accept as everyday commodities now, didn’t even exist as recently as ten years ago. On the other hand, human nature and human needs, especially during times of crisis, haven’t changed in the past four-hundred thousand years. Operational procedures tend to take care of themselves, the most effective leaders focus on the needs of their employees.
Hurricane Ian may have been the worst storm to hit Florida in modern history, but it most certainly won’t be the last. If you take nothing else from this article, remember this: “if you fail to plan, you can plan to fail!”
Michael G. McCourt is a retired Risk Management consultant with more than fifty years of combined experience in law enforcement, crisis management, leadership development, and private security. He is a thirty-year veteran of, and occasional contributor to, the AMS family of consultants.