10 Things Great Leaders Do to Handle a Disaster

Crisis will test any leader. Here’s how the best get through it.

Joel PetersonChairman,JetBlue  Inc.
When disaster strikes — be it a deadly hurricane or a massive cyber-hack — great business leaders respond rather than react.
The difference is subtle but significant. A reaction is a reflex; a response is a procedure.
And the best leaders recognize that real-time responses according to a procedure require a pre-wired plan and practice executing that plan. As Gen. Dwight Eisenhower said of the D-Day invasion, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.”
In the airline industry planning is an obsession. Crisis management is critical. Executives who plan for the worst are best positioned to serve all constituents when it counts most.
Executives who don’t plan for disaster responses are caught reacting, sometimes resulting in mistakes that can irreparably harm customers, businesses and careers.
I was reminded of this during the recent hurricane in Florida. On the one hand, I was heartened by the response of so many people pitching in on the relief efforts. On the other hand, I was distraught to learn that elderly nursing home patients died from heat exposure when an operational hospital was right across the street. Both cases illustrate the fact that executing under pressure depends on prepared teams.
Here are ten tips to consider when “What if?” becomes “Now what?”Put customers first more than ever. The old adage that the captain is the last off the ship is all about customer service. Make sure that the people depending on you are taken care of. Be proactive in dealing with their needs. Get them
information before, during and after crisis events.
  1. Ensure employees are safe. No one can care for custom
    ers when they’re in peril.
  2. Practice. Conduct dry runs of your company’s plans, including under the assumption of things going disastrously wrong.
  3. Build redundant systems. Make sure more than one person knows your systems and that you have more than one way to get things done. Important systems procedures should be stored centrally — and with back-up.
  4. Consider the worst case. When creating a plan, consider the implausible. Ask where a black swan event might be lurking, be it a terrorist attack, product contamination and blackmail, natural disaster, or something else entirely.
  5. Appoint an operational leader. It’s natural for everyone to want to jump in to help, to assess what happened. Plans work best if someone is in charge and has been designated as crisis manager.
  6. Appoint a spokesperson. Make sure the media know who the official voice of the company is and that your team knows to drive all requests to one source.
  7. Clarify your message. Be intentional about what you want people to know. Take the time to craft a simple, empathetic, action-oriented message. Communicate the gravity of the problem and the determination to rectify it as soon as possible. Do not waste time in the middle of a crisis assessing blame. It does nothing to address a problem.
  8. Avoid self-promotion. I was particularly proud of the crew at JetBlue during Hurricane Irma, providing transportation, generators and all sorts of help to people in Florida. Not once did anyone ask, “Should we call the media to get some coverage?” Self-promotion or grandstanding, under those circumstances, is bad form.
  9. Do a post-mortem. During the crisis, start a parallel process to the response to assess what happened. When the crisis has been addressed ask “What happened? How do we learn from this? What can we do to make sure this never happens again? Disasters can strike a company at any time. Predicting them is impossible. Preparing for them is essential.

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