Leadership & Organizational Natural Disasters

This is a tough one. Most organizations, at some point (or points) during their existance, face disasters of one sort or another.

Now I am using the analogy of natural disasters because it’s the best I can think of right now but there are likely better. Natural disasters are events that tear through a community and often weaken or completely destroy the infrastructure and the people within.

They can be earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, hurricanes, tornados, floods and more…sometimes multiple. They can be as a result of human effort or seemingly random or a little of both.

In organizations these things can happen too although we are not, in this instance, talking about literal natural disasters.

There are times when organizations suffer from an implosion of sorts. A kind of perfect storm of events that leads to complete chaos.

The corporate founder and CEO is forced out by the board of directors for instance. This happened at a software company I worked at. What followed was a brutal slide to an acquisition of assets and an ultimate closure of the company. It did not have to happen that way but, in the resulting chaos and leadership vacuum some saw an opportunity and steered the ship in that direction.

Sometimes organizations see a rapid departure of key staff and leadership leaving the aforementioned vacuum and a shocked, numb staff who are left behind to pick up the pieces or transform the organization into a scene from Lord of the Flies.

The thing is, nature abhors a vacuum. In organizations people (the right ones and the wrong ones) will fill that leadership vacuum whether manager chooses to hire replacements or not. In fact the longer it takes for management to act the more likely these situational leaders will become entrenched and thus the damage lasts longer.

One key to surviving an organizational natural disaster is how you choose to look at it. If you approach it from a pessimistic perspective than you will likely sail the ship towards a grave seeing death as the only possible outcome.

There is another perspective however, one I think is better for everyone. Sometimes a natural disaster is nature’s way of rebooting. Forests go through this cycle. Overtime old, dry, dead wood builds up on the forest floor. Growth becomes stunted and the forest begins to stagnate. A wildfire clears away all of this and a new, vibrant forest grows up from the ashes of the old.

The same can be said for organizations. Sometimes you need to use these disasters as an opportunity to reboot and rebuild fresh from the ashes of the old. Clear away the deadwood of the past and take the opportunity to re-structure, re-vision and renew.

It should be said these moments are also opportunity for staff to re-evaluate their own passions and priorities. Statistically when there is a major shift in leadership in organizations up to 25 percent of people/staff will choose this as an opportunity to leave and pursue other options.

Leadership (whoever is left, often the board) needs to place a strong, calm hand on the wheel and reassure staff that all will be ok. It is a time to re-consider the vision of the organization or re-affirm it and make sure remaining staff know they are critical and being listened to during this time.

Most importantly leadership needs to proclaim loud and clear that the goal is to come out of this circumstance stronger than ever.

While these times can be difficult they do not have to be the end of the world but rather, they can be the beginning of a new one.


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