Earthquakes and Leadership
Like many people around the world, I have been touched by the earthquake in Haiti. Indeed, several members of my family live there and all were affected in one way or another by the earthquake. Fortunately, there were no injuries or deaths and the damage was limited to material things.
Despite this good fortune, I had the opportunity to benefit from the generosity of people around me. In particular, I was approached on two occasions to accept donations for an aid agency of my choice. Once it was by the members of my vocal group (which I have already spoken about in the past) and once by one of my children's teachers. Thanks to their generosity, I made a donation totaling nearly $ 1,000 to help in Haiti.
This generosity was not limited to them, obviously. Money and donations poured in from across the world. The entire planet has been touched by the plight of this small country of 9 million people, the poorest of the northern hemisphere. Haiti already had difficulty solving its endemic problems and the earthquake has made the situation worse.
With the influx of donations and offers of help from outside the country, it is now possible to rebuild the country. This will be the biggest challenge. We are currently in the critically phase: the urgent needs are understood and they are somewhat easier to prioritize. First find survivors and rescue the most seriously injured, treat other injuries, provide food and water to everybody. Then what?
Once everyone has basic care, where will the money go? How will we rebuild? How will the country and the capital (Port-au-Prince) change? These are fundamental questions which are not easily answered. They will determine, in large part, if the leaders will make good use of the money and the goodwill of the rest of the world. The world has helped Haiti in the past, but very often this aid has been wasted. Either it has not been redistributed to the population, it has been misused, or has been used to enrich those in power.
I think this is the last chance for the country to prove itself worthy of the help that it receives. This humanitarian crisis will gradually become a crisis of leadership. If well managed, the country will emerge in better shape than before the earthquake. Otherwise ... I don't want to think about it.
Haitian leaders can demonstrate the leadership that the country has lacked in its 200 year history. There have been many presidents, but few true leaders. Formal leadership positions have been abused, while informal leaders have been eliminated. This must change.
Here are some elements to address, and how the same behaviours can apply to workplace also:
Be worthy and grateful of others' generosity: this is not the time to fail donors' expectations. Yes, the country has its faults and difficulties, of course people will make mistakes, but they should not be outrageous. (For example, if aid money was mysteriously found in an anonymous bank account somewhere else in the world.
The same can be said in business. Employees are generally willing to give their time and want the business to succeed. But one way or another, the company makes decisions that thwart these good intentions. For example: forcing people to work overtime without compensation; never thanking the employees for their efforts, even if it is part of their job description; not asking employees' opinions before making important decisions may have an impact on their work and personal life. Gradually, the motivation of the employees decreases until it becomes necessary to threaten them just to carry out the minimum work required of them.
Increase the visibility of leaders: for some time immediately after the earthquake, President Préval and his ministers were difficult to find. One of the few images of the President spoke volumes: he explained to CNN that he had no palace, no home, and nowhere to sleep. He seemed completely lost. Eventually he and his prime minister, Mr. Bellerive, emerged and have been somewhat more visible. But at the height of the crisis, even Haitians in Haiti criticized this invisibility.
Leaders in business can take this to heart also. Take, for example, the owner of a company who felt that the end was near after a disastrous meeting with a client. Instead of telling his staff and explaining the situation clearly, he took refuge in his office and became silent as a clam. The leader's mettle is determined during crises like these. That's when the constituents turn to the leader seeking a direction and a path to follow. When leaders disappear in times of crisis, it undermines their credibility and the morale of their troops. To maintain confidence, make yourself more visible and more accessible, especially in difficult times.
A backup system is essential: after the earthquake, the world realized how precarious the Haitian government really was. The president became homeless. The government held sessions in a small yard. For some, it was charming and quaint. But I asked myself: in how many other countries would we see similar scenes? Very few, I think. Nevertheless, the country and the government have survived, because it is difficult for a country to fail completely and disappear.
In the business world, of course, this near-certainty does not exist. Just see how many big banks and large corporations disappeared in 2009 only. As part of a backup system, the succession plan is an important element. If the company president was killed in an accident or became seriously ill, what would happen? If the headquarters burned down, what happens then? Does insurance adequately cover the property of the company? Good governance requires that all these contingency plans are in place.
Coordination ensures success: in the first days following the earthquake, there was immediate mobilization to help the Haitian people. The early days were difficult from the standpoint of coordination: some planes containing doctors and medical supplies had to be diverted and there was duplication of work among several agencies, wasting valuable resources. Much help and time have been lost by a lack of coordination between the various priorities.
This lack of efficiency and coordination can also plague businesses. Countless projects have duplicated the efforts of another division or another team. Procurement has its issues also: products are purchased twice or three times since one department does not know that another department has a surplus. When an outsider takes a look at operations, she can quickly see and solve inefficiencies that internal leaders don't notice.
Do not assume ill will: Haitians share their island with the Dominican Republic. It is a relatively peaceful but tense coexistence. Haitians accuse Dominicans of being racist toward them, some Haitian workers in the Dominican Republic are treated little better than slaves, etc. Nevertheless, the Dominicans provide invaluable assistance to Haitians. Much humanitarian aid to Haiti transits through Dominican airports, as the largest airport in Haiti cannot support such traffic. Doctors, nurses, supplies, tools pass through the border to reach the Haitian capital. For the time being, differences between both countries are set aside. Without this valuable assistance, Haiti would sink in utter desolation.
A company will not survive long if its leaders believe that customers are constantly out to rip them off (I've witnessed this), or that employees are lazy bums who want to be paid to do nothing (ditto). Even if they aren't being stated overtly, these beliefs are transmitted in the behaviour, interactions, and decisions that are taken. Truth is, we rarely have to deal with crooks or truly dishonest people. Of course, such people exist in all spheres of society, but generally, employees, customers and suppliers are honest and work in good faith. Therefore, leaders who adopt a reciprocating attitude obtain better results and are more successful than those who let themselves be overcome by paranoia.
Adapting leadership to conditions: I think the Préval government was doing adequate work before the earthquake. Many problems have been addressed (mainly around insecurity and violence) and things were on track. After the earthquake, though, its effectiveness remains unproven. In later years we will be able to determine whether it was the right government for this crisis or not. Churchill was the right man when England was at war, but he no longer was once the war ended. A leader in crisis will not have the same characteristics as a leader in time of peace. The first is very direct, gives orders, and leads with an iron fist, as there is little margin for error. The second is more conciliatory and is able take more time to achieve consensus.
The same adjustments must be made in business. The characteristics of the entrepreneur who takes the inkling of an idea and makes it real, are not the same as the one who must manage a company with 200 or 2000 employees whose primary mission is to please shareholders. It's no wonder that many entrepreneurs sell and leave the company they worked so hard to create: the initial challenge simply is no longer there and they get bored.
Establish a vision and communicate it: Why should employees complete the tasks which they are assigned? What is the ultimate goal to achieve? And especially what's in it for them? Very often the targets to be achieved are determined according to the company, managers, or shareholders. The employee is an afterthought. Yet there is a key element to productivity: do the employees know what to do and why they do it? Gone are the days when the boss gave the orders and employees followed without question. Employees seek meaning in their work. They want an answer to the question: why?
In Haiti, I don't think "Why?" is a question that will be too difficult to answer. The difficult question will be "What?" What happens now? How will Haitian leaders (the formal leaders) succeed in creating a single vision that will galvanize the less affluent members of society who will do the heavy lifting, while simultaneously engaging those who control resources and finance much of the work (the informal leaders)? In the past, the country functioned with little vision. When there was one, it was so polarized (e.g., during Aristide's first term) that it became untenable.
The earthquake in Haiti is one of the worst human disasters of all time, both in absolute terms (nearly 200,000 deaths) and relative terms (more than 30% of the population is affected). Bad luck has befallen this small Caribbean country and recent years have been particularly challenging. That's why it is so surprising to see Haitians sing and smile so soon after such an event. These songs and smiles are characteristic of Haitian resilience. This gives me hope that the country and its people will emerge victorious, yet again, from this tragedy.
By the same token, Haitian leaders will determine this: in what condition?
© 2010 Laurent Duperval, All rights reserved