Joplin's EF-5 Tornado: 3 Lessons Learned about Leadership in Crisis

Posted by Dr. C.J. Huff on November 30, 2016
joplin-tornado-5-crisis-leadership-featured-image.jpg

Crisis happens. Sometimes major crisis occurs with a sudden shift in the economy. It can occur with the sudden loss of a key individual without a succession plan in place. Major changes in policy, laws or regulation can also cause organizational upheaval. And certainly, we have all seen what happens when it comes in the form of a natural or manmade disaster.

The truth is that when a major crisis strikes, the person sitting in the leadership chair at the onset of crisis can never be fully prepared. Why? Simply put...every crisis is unique.

Every crisis, whether large or small, has its own unique characteristics that present a unique set of challenges. In organizations, the type of crisis, the abilities of the people sitting in decision-making positions, the emotional and mental capacity of every individual, the duration of the crisis, organizational structures, financial stability of the institution, time of day, experience, etc. all play into that uniqueness.

On May 21, 2011, I turned 41 years old. At that time I was wrapping up my 15th year in education and was serving as the superintendent of schools in Joplin, Missouri. I was blessed to be leading a phenomenal group of 1,200 educators supporting over 7,700 kids. We had already come a long way together as a team. A fully operational strategic plan was in place and the results we were seeking were coming to fruition. However, at the same time, we were bracing our system for what was then known as "the funding cliff" – an inevitable shortfall in school funding due to the Great Recession. Fortunately, we saw the funding crisis coming and had carefully planned our strategic response. We had made tough budgetary decisions, we had involved all the right stakeholders in the right conversations, and we were prepared to overcome reductions in state and federal funding to protect our educational programming.

We were positioned well to continue our good work and ride out the economic storm headed our way. However, that economic storm paled in comparison to the event we were about to experience the very next day.

The following afternoon, our world in Joplin was turned upside down. On May 22, 2011, at 5:41 p.m., less than an hour after the last senior walked across the stage at Joplin High School's graduation ceremony, the most costly tornado in our nation's history touched down on the western edge of our community of 50,000. In just 32 minutes, over 1/3 of our community was destroyed. Thousands of homes and businesses were impacted. As a school district, we had 10 of our 19 schools destroyed or damaged.

Bricks and mortar are one thing - buildings can be rebuilt. What was devastating beyond comprehension was the sudden loss of 161 of our friends and neighbors. As a school district, we lost 7 of our children and an educator. Over 3,000 of my children lived in the direct path of the storm.

May 22, 2011, started out as a day of great celebration but ended as a day that will be forever remembered for the immense shock, pain, loss, sadness, fear, and uncertainty it left behind.

The crisis was sudden and overwhelming. Yet, the heroism of so many – from inside and outside of our community – brought out the best of what makes this country a special place to live.

Invariably, every leader is going to be faced with a crisis at some point in their career. It's just a matter of when and to what degree.

I’ve read a lot about crisis leadership over the years. There is a lot of great information out there on the topic. However, I’ve concluded there really is no secret formula on how to lead through a major crisis of an EF-5 magnitude. There is a reason why a book titled, “Crisis Leadership for Dummies” will never be published. There is no playbook that can provide clear answers.

Although I don’t pretend to be an expert in crisis leadership, I have had a lot of time to reflect on our particular disaster. So please take these “nuggets” for what they are…one leader’s crisis experience.

I will not pretend for a second that my response in each of these areas was flawless. In fact, I’d argue there were more flaws than not, but with mistakes come learning and hopefully that has value to those who take the time to read this post.

For those of you that are in leadership roles, or are responsible for the development of crisis plans, I challenge you to look beyond the “nuts and bolts” of crisis planning. Think on these things and on what you might need to add to your organization's crisis plan to be better prepared.

The BIG 3 of Crisis Leadership

1. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

But unfortunately crisis leadership tends to start out at a sprint pace. When you finish the initial crisis “100-meter dash,” you don’t get to put your hands on your knees and catch your breath. You get the opportunity to start the next race immediately with no clear finish line in sight. The significant leadership challenge at this point is maintaining business continuity and giving people hope that tomorrow will be a better day.

During this phase, vision still matters. In fact, it’s critical. You have to paint a picture of a brighter future to help people see beyond the misery and tragedy of the moment. If you don’t do so quickly, you may just find your organization stuck right there. It’s an essential part of crisis leadership and, in my opinion, the first step in the recovery process. Sir Winston Churchill may have summed it up best, “When you are going through hell…keep going!” Sage advice from a man who clearly understood what it took to lead during a crisis. Create a vision, start the work, and get people moving.

The other leadership challenge that comes during this time is making sure you are running the marathon at a pace others can keep up. Adrenaline and emotion are strong drivers that can move a leader and the organization at an unsustainable pace. If the people you are leading can’t keep up, you may cross the recovery finish line...but you may find yourself crossing it alone. Being aware and self-regulating your “stride” takes self-discipline and mindful monitoring.


2. Take Care of Your People.

Regardless of the type and scale of the crisis, make sure you are taking care of your people and their families. There are two specific needs that will likely need attention:

Basic Needs: Again, depending on the crisis this can look like clothes, food, and shelter. But can also include mental health and counseling services, insurance consultation, financial support, and a myriad of other supports depending on the needs driven by the crisis situation.

Information Needs: Your people, your business contacts, and your community need to know what’s going on. And you need to be thinking long term – not only past the initial crisis, but until there is a crystal clear sense of normalcy across the organization. I can’t stress this enough. If you have a public relations department, understand they are going to be very busy, AND likely need extra help. Not just in the beginning, but also at various points throughout the recovery effort, which frankly may take years. Anniversary dates and other key moments throughout the recovery effort are going to require additional attention, time and personnel. The bottom line is that you cannot communicate too much, but you can most certainly not communicate enough.


3. Take Care of Yourself.

If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else. The fact is, good leaders put others first. That’s what we do. No question it is a great leadership attribute on a day-to-day basis under normal circumstances. In a crisis, however, a caring heart can become a curse. If you are not taking care of yourself because you are too busy taking care of everyone else, you and your organization may not find the finish line. Please be mindful of the following:

First, you are human…not superhuman. If you think you are superhuman, it’s the adrenaline and emotion talking, not logic. Don’t fall into that trap. Eating right, sleep, regular exercise, and time with your family are absolutely crucial when problem-solving through a crisis. When you think you don’t have the time, make the time.

Make time to grieve. The greatest myth of crisis leadership is that you have to be emotionally immovable during difficult times. Any counselor or psychologist would tell you grieving is natural and a critically important part of personally recovering from the pain that comes from loss. It's healthy. Certainly, during times of crisis, everyone will be looking to you for leadership. Does showing strength or resolve really matter? Absolutely. But even history’s greatest and most stoic leaders (Lincoln, Washington, and Eisenhower to name a few.) cried. And they didn’t cry alone. When, how and with whom you grieve is up to you. But give yourself permission to do so. It’s o.k.

Every time disaster happens in this country, whether it be natural or man-made, my heart and prayers go out to those leaders on the front line. I’ve been there and it takes a tremendous physical, mental, and emotional toll on those in the trenches.

At the end of the day, just remember every leader is human. We hurt when others hurt, we fear when others are fearful, and make mistakes just like everyone else. However, if we take good care of our people, good care of ourselves and clearly articulate a compelling vision for others to follow…you will make it across the finish line.

Topics: Joplin's EF-5 Tornado, Meaningful Leadership