About the Crisis Leadership Forum

To better understand the leadership dimensions of crisis situations, the Center for Creative Leadership convened a forum with formal and emergent leaders who played a role in Hurricane Katrina. We overlaid this conversation between crisis leaders with the perspectives of discussants with expertise in disaster, terrorism, public health, and leadership. This blog site is intended to continue this conversation.

To read the report on the Crisis Leadership Forum, please click here.

To read CCL's Leading Effectively newsletter on the Forum, please click here.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Notes from a Survivor of the Andean Aircrash

Pedro Algorta is one of the 16 survivors of the 1972 Uruguayan flight that crashed in the Andes with 45 people on board. The story of the survivors -- who held out for more than two months on the snowy mountains without food, water, or medical supplies -- is chronicled in both book and film (see Alive). Pedro, on reading the Stepping into the Void report, found the leadership lessons we drew from Katrina to parallel what they experienced in the Andean disaster. He writes about the connections in two posts on his blog Survivor Walk excerpted below:

“I just read a “White Paper” from the Center for Creative Leadership addressing the type of leadership that emerges in a crisis situation like the one produced by the hurricane Katrina. And it is amazing how close their findings are to the leadership situations we experienced during the days we spent in the Andes.

… We were peers, we didn’t know what to do, we were not prepared for such an ordeal, we were let by ourselves and we had just to figure out how to survive and to get out of the mountains. And I don’t want to imply that some of us didn´t play a more significant role than others in the Andes, but everyone contributed according to its possibilities, and we all mattered. Even those who were ill or injured played a significant role; just taking care of themselves was important for the group.

… Our survival on the Andes is a case of “Collective Leadership”. There was no one person that accomplished all the leadership tasks and we didn’t have “a Leader”. On the contrary, we were a group of peers figuring out how to get out from the mountains, and everyone contributed according to his capabilities at that time. In some cases, one of us would “step into the void” and make significant contributions; sometimes it was participating in a discussion and offering a new point of view, or giving an inspiring insight, or doing some generous or heroic act, or making an insuperable funny remark or improving the way we did things in order to save energies or provide relief to the injured and ill. The leadership tasks were performed in a collective way.

… As the Katrina analyst said, in crisis situations, systems collapse and there is no one individual person or organization that can cope with the enormous amount of work that performing the leadership task entails. In crisis situations, collective leadership does emerge, and we are clearly an example of it.”

Pedro's blog offers a set of lessons from his workshops that touch on the essence of crisis leadership:
  • "We were ordinary people. Anyone, under similar circumstances would have done the same, and eventually survived. And once you have overcome your mountain, you have another one to climb. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary objectives.

  • We couldn’t have survived individually. Survival was team work, which needed each one of us to be OK. You need to work for the team and for you.

  • There were no absolute leaders. Different leaders emerged according to different circumstances. You have to find your authentic leadership style. Not all leaders are alike. One thing is to be a hero, another is to lead."
The commonalities in what we learned from these two very different disasters – the massive and very public Katrina disaster involving hundreds of thousands of people in a multi-state region and the ordeal of small band of airplane survivors trapped on an isolated mountain -- is striking. Weaving together the hard lessons from these distinct tragedies provides a deeper understanding into crisis leadership. Our thanks to Pedro for bringing these connections to light.

No comments: