Why Personal Leadership Style Matters When Disaster Strikes

CIOs say helping workers cope is key to recovery

The term “disaster recovery” has an oddly impersonal meaning in the computer industry. When IT people use those words, they’re usually talking about recovering data and restoring business operations—not about the human response to catastrophe.

Yet disasters such as floods, earthquakes or even nuclear accidents quickly rewrite the rules of the recovery process, as the senior IT executives interviewed for our cover story (“How to Be a Better Leader in a Disaster”) agree. They each discovered how much personal leadership matters in helping the people around them cope during real crises. While we may think of first responders as police or emergency workers, in the workplace, the CIO and IT team are among the initial responders, tasked with restoring the business’s most essential systems.

Those expectations pile on more pressure in a situation that may already feel out of control. Throughout our story, IT leaders who’ve managed through various calamities share practical tips and advice (see “4 Steps to Help Your IT Team When Disaster Strikes”), always with an emphasis on tending to people’s needs first.

Lon Anderson, vice president of corporate IT at ICF International, says his experiences during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 actually changed his leadership style. “I did have a strong belief that management needed a line between them and staff and an emotional relationship of any kind should be not fostered,” says Anderson. “I came out…feeling the exact opposite.” Today, he actively pushes for more interaction between teams so people get to know one other and will be more likely to work well together in high-pressure situations.

For Linda Goodspeed, vice president of IT at Nissan North America, living through the Japanese earthquake in March left her deeply impressed by the calm, caring approach her Japanese colleagues took as they “went into repair mode” as soon as the building stopped shaking. “To see people execute on this was amazing,” she told us.

For CIO Sonya Christian of West Georgia Health, a veteran of hurricanes and tornadoes, her best advice boils down to a simple question she asks continuously during disasters: “What is the most helpful thing that could be done right now?”

Great question. Apply it to your own disaster recovery plans and see if a rewrite is in order.

Maryfran Johnson is the editor in chief of CIO Magazine & Events. Email her at mfjohnson@cio.com.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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