How would we recover from equipment failure, natural or man-made disaster without leadership? As part of a weekly, multi-disciplinary (sales, engineering and project management) discussion, my colleagues and I talk about the qualities of leaders that have a direct impact on critical infrastructure in North America.
We are currently reviewing a book by John C. Maxwell, The 5 Levels of Leadership. In summary, Maxwell states leaders are empowered by their team. A team leader doesn’t need a title to lead, but does require the support of those he or she leads.
You may be asking what this has to do with disaster response. I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand how leaders emerge during times of crisis. Working with public safety, utilities, Fortune 500 companies and government agencies as they plan and execute strategic plans, I have seen the effectiveness and importance of leadership training.
I could very likely write a book on the actions of leaders during crisis that would be very entertaining, though I believe the real story is before a challenge presents itself. That brings us back to the hand-in-glove analogy between critical infrastructure leadership and disaster response.
Some may argue that great leaders are born with certain qualities, but the reality is that leadership skills can be taught, mentored and developed. Any individual can be a leader, but my experience is that there are some key common characteristics leaders have embraced to prepare them to be great leaders.
First off, there is a commitment to following and serving prior to stepping forward as a leader. Those that seem to have developed the skill of leading, but haven’t learned the value of serving, fail the test of trust and lose the support of their followers. They need to learn the lessons of arrogance and the seductiveness of power. Post-Watergate, I had the opportunity to have a brief one-on-one conversation with President Richard Nixon in which he shared the effect of losing the trust of those he lead.
While at Mississippi Power Company, I was part of a team challenged with improving the effectiveness of delivering reliable and cost-effective electricity safely to residents and businesses in southern Mississippi. One project assigned to our team was the updating of the disaster response emergency plan.
This required pulling together best practices developed from decades of experience in dealing with hurricanes hitting the Gulf Coast. Anyone who has worked in the aftermath of a major disaster will be the first to tell you how important planning and training are. In reality, they can never truly prepare you for when you come face to face with the horror of a natural or man-made disaster. You rely on the training because you have to respond and only have time to refer to the manual for key contact information or reference documentation. But it is key that you have been prepared and know where and who to go to for the information your team needs.
The 1,200-plus employees of Mississippi Power were prepared to step up and showed their leadership skills when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. When more than 11,000 electric utility crews responded from 24 states and Canada to help restore electricity, they had no idea how much damage had been done, as illustrated in this USA Today photo gallery.
The emergency plan we had developed for such an event did not anticipate the full breadth of damage, which had resulted in the loss of all power to businesses and residential customers in the region. But all the training and planning that had been done provided a scalable template. I remember getting phone calls at home in Virginia from past team members who shared how the planning and prep work helped crews get the majority of communications back online within a week because of the planning that had been done ahead of time.
The ability to communicate during or following a disaster requires leaders to be trained and mentored, so that when an emergency presents itself, they are ready to rise to the leadership challenge. This capability comes from the willingness to invest in leadership training programs as well as collaboration between organizations and federal, state and local government officials. This ensures we are prepared as a team to protect our quality of life and, more importantly, protect lives.
In summary, we need to recognize the individual opportunities available for us to develop leadership skills. We never know when it will be our turn to take the lessons we learn and put on the gloves of action that save lives.