Expecting the Unexpected: The True Test of Leadership

Regardless of whether you run a global organization or are just starting your logistics career, you already know that no two days in this business are ever alike. Every day is unique depending on what customers are being served, and where their goods are being shipped.

Some days require more fortitude than others, however. Issues beyond anyone’s control can and will happen. Weather, accidents, mechanical breakdowns, and road construction constitute the usual bumps in the road, but logistics and transportation managers must anticipate more serious threats, from natural disasters to manmade catastrophes and acts of terrorism.

Disaster preparedness deserves our undivided attention now more than ever. We have to anticipate, and prepare for the worst.

All logistics planners worth their salt, of course, have plans in place to deal with the unexpected. They must constantly review and revise these plans to keep up with potential new threats and evolving business needs. But plans alone aren’t enough – times of crisis demand strong leadership.

Take for example retired Lt. General Russel L. Honoré, who served as commander of Joint Task Force Katrina. General Honoré served on or led a dozen other disaster recovery operations, and knows the devastating situations the transportation sector, in particular, must prepare for and react to when natural or manmade disasters strike.

Drawing on history and personal experience, General Honoré has stated that a special type of leadership is needed in today’s world to deal with the unexpected. Factors including extreme population density, the incredibly fast transmission of information, the rise of terrorism, and the interconnectedness of businesses contribute to the magnitude of disruption that a disaster can cause.

Manuals on how to cope with such situations may not provide the direction needed to minimize impacts. In times of crisis, managers must often make decisions based on inadequate information, take action in a split second, and resolve problems for which no precedent exists.

That’s why disaster preparedness and response absolutely require strong leadership. Honoré urges individuals and businesses to take strong personal responsibility for disaster preparedness both at home and at work. "We shouldn’t expect the government, or any institution, to keep us safe," he states. "We have to be prepared to be our own first responders."

In other words, good leaders understand how to take responsibility in times of crisis, even if that warrants a departure from the rules and guidelines established by the manuals.

Recounting his experiences immediately following Hurricane Katrina, General Honoré recalls how the pilots assigned to evacuate victims of Hurricane Katrina insisted that they couldn’t fly without passenger manifests. The TSA also initially wanted to set up screening stations before allowing anyone to get on the planes. Since many of the evacuees had lost everything in the storm, including their personal documentation, the General quickly overruled on both fronts to allow the flights to take off. That was exactly what the situation required. As the General put it, "good leaders also know when to break the rules."

We can hope that disasters will not occur, but also need to acknowledge that they are inevitable. Proper preparedness combined with strong leadership can minimize the impact on our customers and our businesses when the unexpected does happen.

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