Leadership in action

May 11, 2020

Communication, decentralized decision-making, and rapid assessment and implementation are key, in both disaster response and your business.

I was sitting across from a former platoon sergeant of the U.S. Marine Corps Special Forces. Now, Elmer Roman is Secretary of State of Puerto Rico. He was 40-something, wearing a rain jacket and fit, but I could see fatigue in his face. After all, he oversaw the overall response for the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that hit the island on January 7. The earthquake and subsequent aftershocks damaged almost 10 percent of building stock, cut power to two-thirds of the island, destroyed key roadways, and made more than 8,000 people homeless.

It was Puerto Rico’s first earthquake in more than a century, but just two years ago, the commonwealth endured Category 5 Hurricane Maria that killed more than 3,000 people. The government response to the hurricane disaster was slow at best. The U.S. Congress allocated billions of dollars, but only a fraction was distributed. Citizens took to the street and mass demonstrations forced the governor to resign. Subsequently, a new cabinet was formed, including Mr. Roman who had just returned from some 20 years of service in the Marines.

Citizens’ distrust of the government was intense, and after their failure to act after the Maria disaster, I totally understood their frustration. The media’s attention was also largely focused on daily demonstrations and unrest. When our team arrived on the island a few days after the earthquake, the public was panicked. After all, earthquake damages are completely different from hurricane damages. With hurricanes, there is a warning, a beginning, and an end , but not with earthquakes. Aftershocks can last weeks. Anyone can see when a hurricane blows off a roof, or water causes damage, but earthquake cracks are mysterious, even for engineers. Thousands of people fled their homes, cities, and even the island.

I returned to Puerto Rico again eight weeks after disaster response began and saw substantial progress. Eighty percent of affected homes had been assessed. All major roads were restored. One-hundred percent of power was back. Displacement camps were reduced to less than 600 people. What did Mr. Roman and his team do to make this happen?

  1. Do not pretend you know it all. Get experts and get answers fast. Within a few days, they realized this disaster was different. They brought in earthquake response and damage assessment experts from California, New York, and around Puerto Rico and tasked them with setting up a rapid damage assessment system and training. As a leader, your job is to attract someone better than you. In your team, the same thing applies. Make sure to attract people who are faster, more knowledgeable, and smarter. Better technical specialists, managers, and experts. Your job is to make their jobs easier – then, anything can happen.
  2. Set major strategic direction and move fast. Mr. Roman understood the importance of rapid assessment and the opening of key infrastructure as key strategies. His team set a general direction and let their experts do what they can do well. He knew how to move away when needed, and support when required. In your team, vision setting and strategic direction is so critical. Without a strategy and associated action, no team or organization can move or they waste a lot of effort. Just being busy is not good enough and can be fatal. Show the team direction and how to get there – in the most efficient way.
  3. Decentralizing in decision-making. Mr. Roman recognized the importance of municipalities taking responsibility. Mayors need to make the final decisions for their cities and people. There is no way that a centralized government can make decisions for such widespread areas and specific needs. He understood that trust is essential. In your team, trust your offices, trust your leaders, trust your staff, and have them decide and act. Unless your vision is to stay as a one-man show or five-man organization, this principle always applies. Have your team come up with the implementation plan and trust their direction but monitor it carefully and adjust as you go.
  4. Public communication is key. Mr. Roman attends daily press conferences to inform the public and take tough questions from media. People need to know what is happening on a daily basis. Especially when public distrust is so high. He didn’t shy away from media. In your team, external and internal communication is critical. It’s more than marketing. Communication can shape the reality you operate in and you need to take control of this. Your organization’s success relies on it.

I am sure some people may disagree with me about the status of the government’s responses to this earthquake. But without political biases, if you measure against recent disasters and how others reacted to it, I do feel the government and people of Puerto Rico did very well in the first eight weeks. They have incredible challenges ahead for recovery and reconstruction, but I feel Puerto Rico will succeed because of their perseverance and passion for their country.

Kit Miyamoto, Ph.D., S.E., is global CEO of Miyamoto International. Contact him at kmiyamoto@miyamotointernational.com.

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