The devastating earthquake in Haiti arrived unannounced and unexpectedly. Yet, the crisis unfolding is not unfamiliar and echoes the patterns we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In 2007, CCL brought together a group of formal and informal leaders who had played a role in Hurricane Katrina to explore the nature and lessons of crisis leadership. [These findings were published in Stepping in the Void]. The patterns we observed during the Katrina crisis reflect the leadership challenges now present in Haiti:

  • Systems fail.Infrastructure, technology, alert mechanisms and communication may fail or be insufficient. Processes fall apart, leaving leaders in unfamiliar territory. The failures may be brief or long-lasting, confined or extensive. Ongoing or systemic problems that are manageable in routine circumstances may be a serious problem in a crisis.
  • The picture is distorted.No one has a complete picture of what is happening. People looking on from outside (via the news media, for instance) may have a sense of the big picture but may lack accurate, detailed and critical information from within the crisis zone. In contrast, people in the middle of the crisis see what is in front of them – but may be cut off from what is taking place elsewhere.
  • Time is compressed.In the heat of a crisis, the time pressure is great. Moving forward or tackling a part of the problem may be risky in the absence of solid information, but doing nothing isn’t a choice. As the crisis evolves beyond the immediate urgency, the time pressure eases, only to be replaced by the complex demands of a protracted crisis or recovery.
  • Authority is limited – and limiting.A crisis can easily trump existing structures of authority. Whoever is “in charge” is whoever is there. If your organizational protocols require strict adherence to command structure and approvals, they may hinder rapid and effective responses.
  • New leadership emerges.A crisis will generate previously unexpected and unknown leadership capabilities. Individuals will step up to rescue or respond. New organizations and networks arise to provide aid and assistance.

The new leadership that is needed during times of crisis transcends the role of a few heroic leaders. In the words of CCL’s Bill Drath, “No individual alone can provide leadership in the face of a complex challenge.” The question then becomes, “How do we get more people involved in leadership, making it more inclusive and collective?”

That’s the challenge for all of us as leaders, as individuals who are moved by the situation in Haiti, as people who want to make a difference. The crisis appears far removed, but its remedy requires our individual and collective efforts.

To begin, there is an immediate need for money to support the rescue and relief operations. Around the world governments, organizations, and individuals are rallying together to raise billions of dollars. Yet, as with Katrina, this active support will fade as we start to turn away our attention. Meanwhile, it will take Haiti a decade or more of sustained effort to come back from the earthquake.

The leadership void that will emerge is one we must not walk away from. We need to stay engaged for the long haul – to help rebuild schools and people’s sense of confidence and optimism, to help a new economy take shape, and to build a stronger community from the one torn apart in the quake. We are all qualified to step into a leadership role. Angela Cole is one such person who has demonstrated the power “ordinary people” can play in a crisis.

Cole is a nurse and one of the participants in the crisis leadership forum that was held at CCL after Hurricane Katrina. Angela watched the Gulf Coast disaster unfold on her television in New

York and decided she couldn’t just simply watch. Cole put her life on hold, flew to Atlanta and drove into the disaster zone with a pickup loaded with supplies. Along the way, she asked where she could be of help and found her way to a small community in Mississippi that had not been reached by relief efforts. She stayed for two years, working to rebuild the community.

Few of us will have the depth of commitment to do what Angela Cole did, but all of us have the capability to play a sustained leadership role of some sort. Haiti’s revival rests in our hands. 

If you are interested in learning more about how you can contribute to leadership development efforts in Haiti and around the world, please leave a comment!

Photo Credit: United Nations Development Programme

Start typing and press Enter to search