Leading, Post-Harvey

The storm of the century offers a host of challenges for government and corporate heads alike.

The words from the weather pros used to describe Hurricane Harvey are hard to forget: "beyond anything experienced." The rains kept coming and so did the epic floods in the Houston area and beyond. Leaders were challenged immediately and their decisions during and after the storm are being questioned.

But whether they are government, non-profit or corporate leaders, their efforts to shepherd the human and financial resources provide the critical link to recover and rebuild. And if the aftermath of Harvey is like prior disasters, there will be many perspectives on about what, exactly, should be rebuilt. “Organizing a cooperative effort, though, is almost as dif?cult as the problems that the initiative is created to address,” says Naim Kapucu, director of the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida, who has studied disaster leadership extensively.

Experts in crisis management and disaster say the skills leaders need for this type of effort can be broken down into five areas:

Develop a core purpose.

There’s already been an outpouring of support from people offering help. Leaders must be able to build on that and focus it around a core purpose: the rebuilding of the area. While the areas affected are relatively wealthy and have the financial wherewithal to rebuild, getting community members to focus on one overarching purpose—creating a place better than before the hurricane—is a powerful motivating factor.

Be honest.

Early estimates are that that rebuilding after Harvey could cost more than the $100 billion. But whatever the sum, Harvey’s emotional impact will be just as large. Anxiety, and despair are real dangers not only during the storm but for a long time afterward. Those feelings can sap people’s strength, and things can get worse when leaders don’t acknowledge it.

Disasters also can expose flaws in an organization's strategies and policies. The aftermath of Harvey could be a good time to admit mistakes and devise ways to not repeat them. "We expect honesty as part of leadership skills, and this is the time to be much more honest than routine times," Kapucu says.

Lead by example.

Expressing support on social media or through press releases is not enough. During a crisis, leaders must get out in front of the public and talk to people directly about what they need. Leaders do not have to be immune to the catastrophe, says Kevin Cashman, Korn Ferry senior client partner. In fact, strong leaders admit to themselves that they feel vulnerable, afraid and even angry. Only then can a leader think clearly and offer genuine empathy to others affected by the disaster.

Be decisive, but flexible.

It’s not hyperbole to say that the decisions made about in the aftermath of Harvey will impact the lives of millions of people for generations. Smart leaders will use what’s called “participatory action,” writes Brenda Philips in her book Disaster Recovery. Seeking out opinions—and the buy-in—from community members before taking actions on housing, the environment and a multitude of other issues upended by Harvey can help create a sense of ownership among people.

Communicate and network well.

Experts say that communicating effectively is one of the ways to speed along recovery efforts. “There can literally be thousands of nonprofit entities involved in disaster responses, providing key and critical resources, including leadership.” says Joseph Trainor, a professor at the University of Delaware. Executives should look to them—and set other agendas aside—to work with them.