How to Be a Better Leader in a Disaster

From Japan’s triple disaster to tornadoes in the United States, catastrophe can strike anywhere. And when it does, your leadership will matter more than the specifics of your business-continuity plan. CIOs who have been through earthquakes and more share advice for calming, caring for and motivating employees who are coping with devastation.

Linda Goodspeed, vice president of IT at Nissan North America, was attending a global IT meeting at her company’s head office in Japan on March 11 and was caught in the magnitude 9.0 earthquake. The quake was among the top seven most powerful ever recorded and the strongest ever to hit the country. “People were diving under desks. Women were crying. We could see fire outside,” she says. “Window blinds were moving three feet to the left and to the right. I thought the building would fall apart.”

Goodspeed wasn’t hurt, and, to her surprise, panic didn’t prevail. Her Japanese colleagues “went into repair mode,” she says, making sure visitors were OK, leading them to chairs in quiet rooms and providing comfort. “To see people execute on this was amazing.” (For tips on how to do this, see "4 Steps to Help Your IT Team When Disaster Strikes.")

Her experience illuminates what may be an underappreciated aspect of disaster response: the preparation of corporate leaders and the workforce to handle intense, maybe unprecedented, pressure. CIOs are often initial responders to corporate emergencies, and they should understand the psychology of stress every bit as well as their IT contingency plans.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of opportunities to practice. As companies integrate their operations with others’ around the world, they must prepare for a steady stream of trouble. CIOs have to consider the business and social turmoil that can be triggered by world events, including unpredictable natural disasters, social unrest and war—thousands of miles away from headquarters, perhaps, but nevertheless front and center.

A disaster’s dimensions can grow even within one emergency: After antigovernment protests this spring, ongoing civil war and prolonged Internet outages now disrupt life in Libya and in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East. Tornadoes and flooding devastate the U.S. Midwest and South. Companies doing business in Japan continue to deal with the effects of a deadly tsunami and nuclear radiation leaks. There, supply-chain disruptions now drag down the auto and electronics industries. At Nissan in April, global production dropped 22 percent from the year before, while exports from Japan sank 72 percent. In May, the company hoped to increase production but warned that it had to confirm parts delivery with its suppliers daily.

Despite the visible drama, many companies still rely on disaster-recovery plans that assume disruptions will be single and short, says Martin Gomberg, CIO of A&E Television Networks. In reality, the interconnected nature of global business demands new thinking about emergency planning. CIOs must replace outmoded ideas about returning to normal operations in three to five days with plans that consider the domino effect of disaster, says Gomberg, a business-continuity expert who founded Heroes Partnership, a group that helps companies and communities prepare for disasters. “When you talk about your business, you’re talking about your supply chain,” he says. Know their breakpoints as well as you do your own, he says.

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