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Leadership in disaster situations

| May 26, 2023

In disaster situations, NGOs play a crucial role in providing relief and support to affected communities. Effective leadership is essential to ensure that organizations can respond rapidly and effectively to a crisis. What makes up the right leader to deal with these situations? Members of our global team got together recently to unpack those characteristics of leadership and what sort of leadership responses are expected during a crisis, drawing on their observations of recent world events and in their respective regions.

In disaster situations Ije Jidenma (Kestria Nigeria), sees the connection with people involved as key. ‘You need emotional intelligence to be able to assess a situation and be empathic so people know that you actually understand the full extent of what is happening and trust you and your action. A good leader must rise to connect with people and be a good communicator, not just by words, but through body language and decisive action. Sometimes decisions will be very difficult. Looking at both sides of the coin is challenging, but you must not descend into analysis paralysis. You must rise beyond that and be decisive in whatever direction you have taken the decision. Showing courage is also essential. Crisis situations don't always allow or call for democratic process, so we need a leader and leadership that is contextual. Collaborative leadership on the part of governments is needed to allow them to work with NGOs, and for necessary resources to reach those who need them,’ says Ije Jidenma.

Decisive action to minimize fallout

Applying this thinking to the example of flooding in Nigeria, climate related issues such as these are also issues that could be solved by leadership that is proactive in terms of firm expectations. For instance, serious flooding in Nigeria connected with a dam busting in Cameroon, led to catastrophic consequences, such as food security, that could have been avoided. This chain reaction that can occur requires swift, proactive moves to ensure that the ripple effect is minimal.

For Natashya Pillay (Kestria South Africa & USA) the characteristics crisis leaders should possess are universal, with visibility being the most important. ‘It's not enough to be taking action, but it's important to be seen to be taking action. And this is paramount to building trust and confidence in all affected by a crisis to gain support. Compassion also allows a leader to understand that, although this is a universal crisis that has taken place, there are subjective experiences in what is really being felt by individuals, being able to use that empathy and compassion to deal with things in a more individualized way. Agility to comprehend that although a major crisis has taken place, there may also be minor crises that occur that a leader has to contend with. And it would be wonderful if the leader has that level of emotional intelligence and intuition that can allow them to foresee minor crises and react appropriately and with a sense of urgency,’ adds Natashya Pillay.

Good collaboration to secure the right aid

Taking the example of the earthquakes that happened earlier this year in Turkey and Syria, collaboration was key in providing resources, whether financial or tangible. This cannot be done by any one person and also depends on the scale of a crisis, the scale of damage and the cost. Good collaboration serves to establish which stakeholders would be the best advisors in guiding you through that process.

Malcolm Duncan (Kestria Australia) views vision mission alignment as pivotal and combined with the previous characteristics discussed, what is sought in any leader, and particularly critical when people's lives are at risk. ‘In terms of leadership styles, both adaptive and transformational leadership are key. One question that always comes up is whether a democratic leadership style can work in a crisis, in that everyone's involved in decision-making and consensus rules. As previously mentioned, nothing gets done on its own in a crisis. So collaborative leadership in disasters becomes very important,’ states Malcolm Duncan. 

Looking at Australia, forest fires and flooding occur regularly. Solutions to these are multi-agency responses. A lot of land and wildlife loss, as well as people displacement, occurs. Agencies such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Red Cross are engaged to tackle the resulting issues in a collaborative effort.

For Patrick Westerburger (Kestria Netherlands) crisis preparedness is at the core of disaster management, including crisis protocols. ‘Once the protocols are there, it is important to have leaders who can easily adapt to the new situation. They need to take action and transform quickly in crisis and emergency situations both physically and mentally. No crises are planned and can take place in any part of the world. In case there are no leadership teams on the spot in a specific country or disaster area they need to travel to the specific country and act fast,’ says Patrick Westerburger.

Prevention is better than cure

Taking climate change and drought as an example, this causes problems when it comes to food supply. In Argentina, a lot of cattle died because drought and harvest were ruined for one of the largest food producers in the world. Fortunately, humanity was not affected there but in other parts of the world this directly impacts people's lives. So, technology needs to be part of the solutions for prevention of disasters. In Turkey and Syria for example, new construction is taking place to avoid future disasters. In the Netherlands, being at sea level, we had a major, unexpected flood in the 50s which claimed thousands of lives. Now protection from the sea has become a priority and created a lot of technological, preventative solutions. Even developing regions are availing of such solutions, such as New York which saw extensive flooding in recent times, so being prepared is key.

Being agile, prepared and decisive as a leader is integral to success, in times of all types of crises. Our organization is built on and driven by global collaboration, giving us a full and comprehensive view of world markets and events, and the leaders with the right experience to take organizations through their darkest times.

Kestria Insights