In Depth: Natural Disasters
Leadership: It takes a team

MIT Sloan experts take a hard look at the leadership of relief efforts

Red Cross worker distributing aid Photo: German Red Cross workers load the first transport plane at Cologne airport, Germany, Oct. 12, with relief goods for the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan. AP Photo.

In the 10 months between late December 2004 and October 2005, the world community absorbed a devastating tsunami, a cataclysmic earthquake, and a relentless march of hurricanes. It's been a period in which the quality of leadership has had a dramatic correlation to quality of life — and to survival.

What have we learned about leadership from this annus horribilis? Members of the MIT community have been at the frontlines leading and assessing relief efforts and developing answers to that loaded question.

Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen, a 1989 graduate of the MIT Sloan Fellows Program, assumed leadership of the Gulf hurricane recovery effort from FEMA head Michael Brown. MBA student Nathalie Butcher, '06, spent her summer in a remote region of Indonesia bringing services and economic viability to villages hard hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, a 1972 graduate from the MIT Sloan Fellows Program, led a hue and cry on International Day for Disaster Reduction that reducing poverty reduces vulnerability to disaster. He called 2005 “a year of profound lessons.”

Lessons from FDR
Meanwhile, management experts like MIT Sloan Professor Thomas Kochan and his colleagues across MIT have been analyzing the leadership of these disasters to determine what went right, what went wrong, and what needs to change. Kochan spoke as part of the month-long MIT symposia Big Questions After Big Hurricanes. In his lecture “Hurricane Katrina: What Would FDR Do?” he drew comparisons to Roosevelt's response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“FDR instinctively understood the need for cooperation and unity in his time of great crisis,” Kochan observed. “Within two weeks of Pearl Harbor, he brought the nation's business and labor leaders together with key government officials and insisted they set aside partisan differences and work together to help the country through its crisis.”

In response, he says, they reallocated resources to produce the aircraft, ships, and radar systems needed to win the war. In addition, they worked together to maintain labor relations, train a new generation of workers, and hold inflation in check.

“By working together,” Kochan notes, “these parties developed and put in place many of the workplace practices we take for granted today — fair wages linked to productivity and profits, grievance procedures for resolving disputes without strikes, modern fringe benefits such as vacation pay, pensions, and health insurance.” And the crowning innovation — the GI Bill, which helped returning soldiers earn the education necessary to achieve a middle class standard of living.

Kochan illustrates how the present leadership in Washington failed to draw coalitions of critical interests to address the aftermath of recent natural disasters and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He blames the “go it alone” mindset of the Bush administration resulting in “uncoordinated efforts to prepare for and respond to Katrina. Government leaders must recognize a basic principle: Government cannot and need not manage crises of this magnitude alone. It needs to draw on and work in coordinated fashion with the full range of resources available.”

Leadership at all levels
MIT supply chain expert Yossi Sheffi, director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, also participated in the Big Questions After Big Hurricanes symposia. Author of the much-talked-about new book The Resilient Enterprise: Overcoming Vulnerability for Competitive Advantage, Sheffi thinks many shortfalls led to the crisis in the Gulf Coast recovery effort: “Instead of taking decisive actions, city, state, and federal officials argued with one another; communications broke down, and too many civil servants ... did not have the urgency or the passion required.”

Sheffi believes that resilient corporations — those that have survived, even flourished, in the wake of disaster — have much to teach government agencies about how to prepare for crises. He stresses that the troubles in the Gulf region weren't about communications technology, as some observers had proposed, but about leadership. “The issues ... have nothing to do with technology. They entirely have to do with reporting lines, organization lines, agreeing to work together. The technology is there.” Sheffi's book is reviewed in the current issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review.

MIT Sloan Professor Deborah Ancona, faculty director of the MIT Leadership Center, notes that natural disasters call on all of a person's leadership skills. And good leadership requires delegation and dissemination of responsibility. She points to MIT Sloan's pioneering Distributed Leadership Model (DLM). The core of leadership development and research at MIT Sloan, the DLM moves away from “command and control” in favor of “cultivate and coordinate.”

“What is clear is that during such disasters you need leadership at all levels. Executive leadership to devise overall strategy and people on the ground with the authority and skills to act of their own accord when necessary,” Ancona says. “During the tsunami, you saw doctors who took it upon themselves to organize.”

This, she notes, is what the DLM model is all about: understanding the context in which one is operating, developing productive relationships and networks, visualizing the desired outcome, and inventing ways of working together to realize that vision.

“Natural disasters demand all these skills,” Ancona observes. “They are important aspects of a leader's repertoire. A huge amount of innovation is necessary, new processes, new structures to pull together relief agencies and all the disparate actors in the relief effort. Multiple agencies have to work together, so relating skills are pivotal.”

From the classroom to the frontlines
MIT Sloan students like Jeff Coker, MBA '06, put the Distributed Leadership Model into practice in the classroom before they take it out into the world. Coker says his intense crisis simulation course, which dealt with a Bosnian peacekeeping mission, has given him insight on the recent management of disasters.

“With the scale and complexity of contemporary disasters,” he says, “the concept of distributed leadership is essential. One person, one team, one organization is usually not enough to manage all the issues related to such calamities.”

As a result of the Bosnian simulation exercise, Coker learned that “leaders should force themselves out of restrictive command and control hierarchies and bureaucracies that might be effective in controlled crises.” He says that those in charge must build relationships outside their usual networks. “In times of crisis, it is these informal relationships that can make the difference. During Katrina, for example, FEMA could have worked with media outlets to get information out quicker and to get the latest news from the affected areas.”

The proof of the effectiveness of the distributed leadership model is in the practice. Last summer MBA student Nathalie Butcher, '06, took this and other skills and knowledge learned during her first year at MIT Sloan to Indonesia to help victims of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. Based in Jakarta, she worked for the Indonesian NGO United in Diversity helping tsunami victims to rebuild businesses and launch new ones.

The challenge, Butcher says, is that every disaster is different and calls for a plan based on the resources and limitations available at that moment in time. Butcher, copresident of the MIT Sloan Leadership Club, is planning a career in disaster relief and has done extensive research on the management of natural disasters. She says there's a strategic timeline that must be followed for relief efforts to be productive.

“The first step is to get people out of immediate danger. Get them medical attention, food and water, and some form of shelter. Then get people on the ground to survey the situation. Where is the present and future danger? Get communications established. Get people into the unsafe areas to find out what's needed and arrange for the necessary help.”

The sequence of relief work, Butcher says, is essential: “If you build a school before you've given somebody a tent, your priorities are out of whack.” She has seen firsthand the domino effects that hamper relief efforts. “You can't build a house if you can't get the building materials there. You can't get the building materials there if the bridges are out. And you can't get the bridges fixed if you can't get an engineer in to look at them.”

Innovative collaborative systems
The critical flaw in recent disaster relief situations, MIT Professor Otto Scharmer believes, is responding to today's issues based on yesterday's realities — what he calls “downloading.” When we are confronted with new challenges, he says, we have to invent new solutions. And the best way to reinvent is to bring together a coalition of individuals with a stake in the outcome.

“In disaster relief situations,” Scharmer emphasizes, “multiple stakeholders must come together. Business planners, government officials, NGO representatives, and all players critical to solutions need to collaborate in jointly addressing the situation on the ground.”

When it comes to building innovative collaborative systems, Scharmer has plenty of experience putting research into practice. He is cofounder of Project ELIAS (Emerging Leaders for Innovations Across Systems), an alliance of nine global institutions from all sectors that includes BP, Unilever, the UN Global Compact, the World Bank, NGO players, and members of the MIT community.

Scharmer is also the architect of the pioneering Theory U, which entails sensing and prototyping strategic microcosms of the future. Relative to Theory U, Scharmer sees four essential capabilities for leading disaster management:

  • Be in the moment. Disengage your routine and absorb the situation at hand. Devise new networks of people close to the situation.
  • Reflect deeply. Don't make assumptions. Envision the future. Imagine multiple scenarios.
  • Summon an authentic leadership presence. Be open. Access your deeper sources of intuition.
  • Innovate and iterate. Innovate out of the context of the disaster you face. Then improve as you go along.

Scharmer says failure to approach each challenge anew from a multi-stakeholder perspective leads to major breakdowns in the handling of catastrophes. By way of example he points to issues of sustainability and global warming. “Global climate issues can't be addressed by single institutions or sectors,” he says, “but by their root problems.” Trying to solve new challenges with antiquated systems, he believes, spells disaster in an era of increasing disasters.

'The people who quietly prevent it'
The last word on the viability of systems must come from the inventor of system dynamics himself — MIT Sloan Professor Jay Forrester. Almost every natural disaster, like almost every corporate and social disaster, arises out of a systemic set of policies that created, or at least contributed to the disaster, he says.

“Usually, the disaster arises from failure to internalize and act on one of 'Murphy's laws,' to the effect that if something can go wrong, it will,” he explains. “Regarding the recent New Orleans disaster, it was well known that the levees would likely fail in a major hurricane, but they had not yet, so the hope was that they would not in the future.”

Forrester points to the U.S. space shuttle disasters as another case in point. Such a calamity, he says, had nearly happened before, “but rather than acting to remove the potential causes, managers under budget and political pressures chose to look the other way. Even the Pakistan earthquake disaster is significantly a result of not building for earthquake resistance in an earthquake region.”

Forrester observes that while it's the anticipators who deserve credit for disaster averted, it's the disaster managers who attract the attention. “People, politics, and the press are more excited about the hero who copes with a disaster than the people who quietly prevent it.”

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