By Gino Blefari
This week my travels find me in Northern California, where I’ve been keeping close tabs on the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. I’ve received numerous phone calls, made quite a few myself, emailed network members, and read your emails in return, which detail not only the destructive aftermath of the storm but also the inspiring courage of volunteers who are stepping up from all parts of the country to help where help is needed. Small boats, military Humvees … these heroes are deploying whatever it takes to bring those in harm’s way to safety.
It could be a whole post—or even a book—to explain why the worst situations bring out our very best but it’s certainly worthwhile to examine Hurricane Harvey through the lens of leadership. When disaster strikes, we look to leaders to provide strength, inspire hope, and guide us through hardship toward recovery and ultimately, some kind of resolution.
When I think of leaders who have battled resounding tragedy, I think of Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York City during the 9/11 attacks. His ability to be compassionate and calm yet realistic and candid imbued Manhattan—and the United States—with much-needed brightness during one of America’s darkest days.
I think also of Captain Edward John Smith, most famous for steering the RMS Titanic, who went down with the ship when it struck an iceberg and sank on April 15, 1912. The British Merchant Navy officer is remembered fondly for his stoicism in the face of utter tragedy on the high seas. Crew members recalled his formidable figure standing tall on the ship’s bridge, megaphone in hand, assisting with the evacuation of passengers onto life boats, knowing not all would survive and knowing he would most likely die.
Another example of leadership amid crisis can be seen in Mary Barra, GM’s first female CEO. In 2014, Barra—who had been an electrical engineer at GM for more than 30 years—was only two months into her new role when news broke that GM put more than 1.7 million cars on the road that had an ignition-switch defect responsible for dozens of deaths. The development was an awful blow to one of the world’s largest automakers and Barra didn’t shy away from blame. Instead, she addressed the harrowing ordeal with a solemn and earnest video apology. “Something went very wrong,” she said, “And terrible things happened.”
A 2007 article that ran in The New York Times said this about leadership and disaster: “In times of consuming trauma, psychologists and historians say, a leader must speak with a trusted voice and sketch honestly the painful steps to safety. A leader must weave a narrative of shared loss while acknowledging consuming anger.”
It’s been estimated that more than 30,000 people have been displaced just in Texas alone, and hours ago Harvey threatened the region again with relentless new waves of rain. The images we see on the ground are a heartbreaking reminder that now more than ever leaders are needed to do what we do best … lead.
So, what’s the message? Leadership exists on a continuum and its core tenets of resilience, determination and strategic planning then execution must be present as evidently in the lowest valleys of leadership as they are at the highest peaks. When catastrophe strikes like it did recently for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, a leader must balance sympathy with strength, feel the tense emotional pull of the situation and lead with rationality and clear-mindedness, just as the network professionals who shared their volunteer stories with me have done. It’s never an easy or simple thing to do but then again, what act of courage ever is?
If you’d like to contribute funds to those affected by Hurricane Harvey, the following organizations are currently collecting donations: