From the natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, tornados and volcanoes, to the manmade events like stock market crashes (and plunges), home housing prices, bank failures, and Wall Street missteps, and yes, even oil spills (from the crash of the Exxon Valdez to BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil platform explosion) how we recover depends upon leadership. Stepping immediately up to the plate to define the problem, identify courses of action, take steps to mitigate the damage, and start a coordinated recovery with deployment of available resources quickly and efficiently means someone, somewhere—whether designated by office, title, position or ability—needs to step up. As Ben Sherwood explains in his book, The Survivors Club, 10% of the people will do nothing in the face of disaster and will become victims of the disaster, 80% will essentially wait to be told what to do by a “leader” and 10% will become the survivors.1 These “survivors” are leaders first for their own interests (yes, we all operate from self-interest). The leaders who step and take charge stand out, stand up and take action to deal with disasters—whether these are manmade, natural, or a combination of the two.
Oil in the Gulf of Mexico: We have it, we need it and it doesn’t come without risks. It is easy to point at the current disaster and say, “See? Oil is bad. Drilling for oil is bad because of the potential for damage to the environment.” The reality is that drilling for oil off of the United States coasts will happen. It is inevitable as the need for energy continues to increase and new sources are more difficult to find. Although we don’t want someone to drill in our backyard or off our shores, someone will. Another country could potentially drill off our shores and we would be able to exercise no control of how, where and when. If we drill and learn from lessons of the past, we can do so in a way may not necessarily eliminate all risk but can mitigate it by having in place contingency plans, tools and resources that leaders can utilize quickly. In case of another disaster, they would be able to minimize the damage and start recovery immediately at ground zero, and not days, weeks or months after an event.
Disasters are not party specific. It should never be about political parties, grandstanding or finger pointing (although often politicians try to make it so). In the face of any disaster, its victims and survivors need leadership, not rhetoric. They need the basics of life and the foundation for recovery, not multiple investigative Congressional panels that spend money and waste time better devoted to solutions than postmortems. There will always be time to find who’s responsible, learn from mistakes and implement better practices. But time is of the essence when it comes to responding to disasters, near disasters and uncommon events.
As leaders we must be prepared to step and take action. Accountability and responsibility belong with leaders who are willing to step forward—with or without sanction—to take control, stabilize the situation and begin recovery. Today there are all too few leaders in critical positions of leadership. While we all have self-interest, in the long run, self-interest is best served by being a leader; not being a talker, poser or finger pointer, and by not playing “the blame game.” In disasters there are more than enough problems, issues and responsibilities that people can figure out on their own who is to blame and who is a leader.
From Hurricane Katrina to the Nashville Floods of recent days, from the banking crisis to the stock market plunge, from every corner of this country and beyond, the decisions being made in the face of crises shouldn’t be first and foremost about who is to blame; they should be about how we fix, recover, mitigate and prevent further damage, additional complications and recurrences. After the recovery process is underway and the situation is under control, get to the root cause, whether it was legislation, lack of regulation, self-interest, nature, whatever and whomever. True leaders will not focus on blame, but accountability.
1 Sherman, Ben. The Survivor’s Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2010.