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10 Leadership Lessons from Hurricane Sandy

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November 19th, 2012

- Updated on

June 14, 2018 - 11:03am

By Diana M. Gáler - Senior Consultant and Executive Coach with AJO 

One would have to be completely cut off from all news sources to be unaware of the severe and unprecedented impact of Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, in particular, New York City and my home state of New Jersey. The photos, videos, and unrelenting newscasts have been a near uninterrupted tale of escalating misery. As with the many natural disasters that we witnessed in the last couple of years, the constant barrage of news bulletins has the unfortunate consequence of inuring us to human suffering. But when it hits closer to home, the pain is much harder to ignore.

As a leadership coach, my thoughts run to what can be learned from the experience. In any crisis, there are those who show true leadership and those who are shown up by their reactions to the situation. These are the lessons that I am drawing from the current crisis:

  1. Focus on what is important – At the end of the day, what is important is people. Family, friends and loved ones are irreplaceable. Material goods are only as important as they can provide for our needs: shelter, food, security, etc. Work, unless focused on the immediate needs of others can usually wait.
  2. Focus on the present, not the past or the future – In a crisis, it is critically important to be present and to be aware of what is, without filtering through the lens of the past, whether that be relationships and alliances, wrongs or hurts. In immediate crisis, the focus must be on the task at hand. If the present is in danger, there is no future.
  3. Be the calm in the storm – As a leader others will look to you to be calm. Even if you are working furiously and managing a million details, you must avoid looking frazzled or distraught. Your calm demeanor will help others stay focused and able to weather whatever transpires.
  4. Focus on things that you can change, not on railing against those you can’t – A crisis is a time for action – calm, measured and planned action. The circumstances or the situation may not be changeable so focus on what you can impact. Be aware, though, that there are many things you can change, and beware of assumptions that may keep you from positive and impactful action.
  5. Look at the whole picture to avoid unintended consequences – In a crisis, it may be tempting to try easy solutions – solving a single problem in a complex situation. Be aware that easy solutions may create new problems. We live in a complex world with complex systems; look at solutions in the context of their complex systems. Fixing a small leak in a way that creates greater pressure further down in the pipe may cause a much larger spill.
  6. Roll up your sleeves and help – It probably goes without saying, but most of us assume there is nothing we can do, especially in large-scale disasters. Even if it is only listening, supporting or giving money, every little act of kindness and caring helps.
  7. Plan and prepare for multiple scenarios – The best outcomes from crises happen because the scenario that created them was predicted and a solution set planned. In NYC after the attack on September 11, 2001, the execution of the evacuation and rescue plan was carefully planned and rehearsed. Although the attack itself may not have been a predicted scenario, the response, in all of its layers and components, indeed, was carefully planned.
  8. Leave politics aside – If you focus on the present, solving the crisis and helping people, there is no room for decisions based on politics. In this current crisis, I admired Governor Christie’s (not my favorite governor) ability to accept and give praise where it was due, even though it meant a potential loss of favor with his own party.
  9. Be authentic, you can’t “play” a crisis to gain favor – Though a crisis may show who is a true leader, using a crisis for personal gain is, at a minimum, distasteful. Using a crisis as a “photo op” or to justify political posturing can be easily seen for what it is: inauthentic, shameless opportunism.
  10. Recognize when you must change a decision – again, in the current crisis, Mayor Bloomberg of NYC handled things beautifully, with empathy, great planning, and execution. Although he presented very good reasons, the decision to go ahead with the scheduled NYC Marathon was the exception. However, once it was clear that the decision would get in the way of his ability to continue to engage the public and organizations in the relief effort, he recognized that the decision had to change, whatever the cost. Neither of the decisions, the original or the reversal, was easy and I cannot say either one was right or wrong. The ability to take ownership of a mistake and move to solve it does not diminish the leader.

What other lessons do you draw from this painful crisis? What do leaders who exemplify these capabilities do with their teams? Please share your examples and ideas.

Published with permission of Gáler Coaching 
Diana M. Gáler, Ph.D., DABT*, ACC, CPC, MP-ELI.