The Hidden Enemy Harvey and Irma Left Behind

Leaders helping Texas and Florida recover from hurricanes face a huge obstacle: emotional stress.

The damage will be making headlines for months and years, with the combined toll from both Hurricanes Irma and Harvey likely to exceed $200 billion. But with a number that staggering, leadership pros say the tendency may be to miss what is likely the greater harm: the emotional toll. 

When it comes to repairing buildings and roads, both Texas and Florida are in stronger financial shape than they have been in past years.  But both public and corporate leaders will need to deal carefully with huge emotional stress of their own and of those with whom they work. 

"Most leaders who are resilient will move straight to leadership and direction when other people are still needing emotional support or are angry and need information,” says Dennis Baltzley, Korn Ferry’s global head of leadership development. In other words, managers may move too fast as compared to some of the people around them.

Though the devastation is enormous, Houston and surrounding areas are rich with energy-related money. At the same time, Florida is the fourth richest state in the country, as measured by personal income. Houses will be rebuilt, roads will be repaired, and services will be restored.

For those personally touched by the storm, however, working through the emotional process will likely take far longer than rebuilding houses or roads. It’s a complicated matter that needs a nuanced approach that leaders of all types must comprehend. After any loss, whether it be a job loss, loss of a home, or a death in the family, people go through different stages of grief, Baltzley says. “Awareness of where people are on the grief curve is vital to all leaders across all sectors,” he says. “It’s going to take years, and people go through the curve at different rates.”

The beginning of the process is about coming to terms with what happened. Expect anger from people. It’s understandable for anyone seeing their home and possessions destroyed. When people are in denial or are angry, they won’t hear what you say about planning for the future. The principal remedy at those stages is for leaders to provide information and to communicate. 

When the anger has dissipated then people descend into depression as they tackle the question of, “What next?” Says Baltzley, “If people are in the depression stage, then the role of the leader is to provide emotional support.”

The final stage is acceptance, which is another way to say that people have arrived at the point where they understand everything will alright in the end. When people are accepting of their current situation, that is the time to shift to leadership and direction. In other words, that’s the time to direct people in getting the job of reconstruction done.