Monday, May 20th started out as a normal day for people in Moore, Oklahoma, a community of about 56,000 people about 10 miles south of Oklahoma City. By late afternoon the world had turned into rubble and ruin for many in this town. Rescuers worked through the night to pull people out from under destroyed homes, businesses and schools. 29 people died including 9 children. Clean up will take months. Recovery will take years.
Immediately after the tornado passed, the local police, firefighters and EMTs took action. Within hours, the Oklahoma National Guard arrived at the scene with fully rehearsed rescue teams. They had the tools, skills and communication processes in place to call in more help. The additional help was triggered based on what they saw when they got there. By nightfall the Red Cross had shelters set up. The nearby medical facilities were ready for an emergency and all hands showed up to help the wounded. Now, neighbors are showing up to cook, find pets, deliver gloves and generally serve. The town is mobilized.
What kind of leadership is required to get a community through a crisis like this? What can we, as students of leadership, observe and thus learn and apply in our areas of influence?
- Act quickly – There is no time to hesitate when a crisis occurs. Decisive action is important in triage. Even in a business context this remains true. Get moving on the critical issues of life, safety, continuity, sustenance. Know where your staff is. Get the facts. Gather your resources. Assess the damages. Send out the first responders. If the problem is with a supplier, fly there. If the issue is in your own manufacturing plant, visit and evaluate. If the problem is with a new product launch, get to where the action is and gather the information at the source.
- Ask for help – There is no virtue in going it alone. If the problem is really a crisis, call in others. Get suppliers, partners and other functional groups involved in solving the problems. Tell the boss.
- Communicate regularly – Perhaps the information will not be precise. Perhaps you will have to revise after more is known. But getting information out to those impacted will serve two purposes. First, you will calm those impacted. You and your team know what is happening and action is being taken. Second, you will get everyone on the same page. When should updates be expected? Who is doing what? What are the near term instructions?
- Create structure – Put together a war room with a steering team. Put people in charge of different parts of the problem. Ask for a cadence of information flow. Meet regularly.
- Be visible – If you are running a local team, be there. If you are running a global team, be there virtually by calling into team meetings or even creating video updates. Be accessible. Talk with the team casually to understand mood and to get facts from all levels. Your ears are the most important tools you have during a crisis. Listen.
- Be a servant leader – Pick up the symbolic shovel. Contribute at multiple levels even if just a little. Your job is to show others that you are in the situation with them. If you are seen as above it all, the team will not hit its full potential.
- Have a plan prepared beforehand – Of course, this is wise. But many companies, families, small businesses are not thinking about the possibilities of a game changing emergency. Thinking through an action plan before the crisis can save crucial minutes when something happens. Put the plan in writing. Practice with a staged crisis situation. Involve your immediate organization and those throughout your value chain. Business Continuity Plans can make all the difference when a crisis occurs in your company or supply chain.
News of the tornado in Oklahoma struck a nerve for me. There is no way to predict when a crisis will occur in communities and similarly, there is no way to predict crisis in business or supply chains. The only certainty is that crisis of some sort will show up in the future. Be ready and be a leader when it happens.
In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
Dwight D. Eisenhower