I was born on St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. This year, my father survived both hurricanes--Irma and Maria--on the island. One of his biggest takeaways? The leadership displayed by the governor of the Virgin Islands, Kenneth Mapp.
Leading well is always challenging, but it's especially hard when things are stressful and there are a lot of unknowns. That's exactly what Governor Mapp was dealing with, and there are several leadership lessons to glean from the way he got his population through some of the worst hurricanes in history:
1. Be proactive
As my father says, "When something bad happens, you gotta give the people information. Even if it's bad news, you've gotta tell them. Otherwise, the rumors fly."
Governor Mapp pulled no punches when it came to communicating with his populace. He was on the radio almost every night (both before and after the storms), and he was clear and direct:
"Get ready," he told people on St. Croix the night Maria was to hit. "Sleep in your street clothes. Have your shoes by the bed. Don't just go to sleep like this is any other night. This is a very dangerous storm, and it's coming now."
If there's something wrong at your company or on your team, don't wait to be asked about what's happening. People can tell something is going on, so let them know what it is; otherwise they'll make it up. Don't craft the perfect speech in your head, or wait to get all the information. Share what's going on as it's unfolding; you'll generate trust and relieve stress.
2. Take responsibility
The governor repeatedly said, "This is my job. I'm the one to blame. Don't have this or that? It's me."
He didn't waste time shirking responsibility or laying blame at someone else's doorstep. He just kept repeating that the buck stopped with him, and kept moving forward.
He also repeated that he didn't want to hear from anyone on his staff that something "wasn't their job" or "wasn't their department."
"It's your job now," he said. "It's all of our job."
3. Be straightforward
The day after Hurricane Irma, Governor Mapp was on the radio: "Listen, I've gotten a lot of calls, messages, people reaching out, wanting to know when the power's gonna be back on, when things are gonna be back up. Look: this was a major storm. It's gonna be a while!"
Here's what he didn't say: "Well, we're using all the resources at our disposal to coordinate our efforts. We're looking to generate real results as soon as possible, and we'll keep you informed as to the status of the primary efforts."
No. Especially when people are scared and unsure, keep your words simple and clear. Be informal and to the point, and again--don't wait to be asked the sensitive questions. Address them fully, even if the news is bad.
4. Bring in your team
Looting is always a concern after a natural disaster. The Virgin Islands had a curfew in effect immediately after the storms, and kept it in effect for weeks. The governor repeatedly had the Chief of Police on to say YES, we will be arresting people in violation of the curfew (again, don't wait to be asked).
He also had the Head of Housing & Urban Development on, to let people know what was going on with getting tarps (to cover blown-off roofs), and which shelters were open where. He had infrastructure experts on to talk about the roads and airport. And he wasn't afraid to interrupt and say things like, "Now don't cut the wires, people! Like the man said, do not cut the power lines if they're down on the road. We can salvage them, so let them be."
Bring in key team members to help you get correct info out the first time. And don't be afraid to reword what they say to make it obvious what the big takeaways are.
4. Keep your sense of humor
There was a mercy ship after the hurricane--a cruise ship that would take between 2,000-3,000 people off the island. The governor, in explaining the details, told people, "This is a one-way trip. So you really want to think about this... You thinking of going to stay with your sister who you've never gotten along with, and bringing along your husband and three kids, for a couple weeks, maybe a couple months?
Well... you really want to think about that."
If you're a good leader, you know your company or your team well; use that knowledge to help prepare them for the worst (if it comes to that), while also not taking it too seriously. Humor is your helper.
5. Inspire compassion
Many will tell you that the worst part of any large storm isn't the storm itself ... it's the aftermath. It's the days, weeks, or months without power, full of dark nights and no running water. It's when you're hungry but the ATMs aren't working and you can't buy groceries without cash. It's when you're afraid to use your generator because you don't want to attract looters. It's when you've gone your 17th day without a real, hot shower.
It's easy to get short with other people during this time. It's easy to be irritable or even angry at those around you, especially if they're not loved ones.
Governor Mapp addressed this, and especially how his own people (government employees) would be treated:
"You know, you're gonna be in a line for a government service, and it's gonna be hot. The line is gonna be long and you're gonna be standing there in the sun for hours. But remember something: that clerk behind the counter, she may have two kids at home. She may have no roof, either. And her kids may be wondering, 'Where's mom? Why isn't she helping?' Well, she is helping: she's helping you."
It was a not-so-subtle reminder that no one got out of this. These storms weren't something that only impacted a few; everyone was in it together--including the civil servants.
Don't be afraid to remind people to see beyond themselves. Everyone is capable of greatness, especially when inspired by a leader who reminds them of their own humanity.
If there's anything we've seen over the past year, it's that public servants can let us down. They can fail the most vulnerable right when they need them most. They can destroy freedoms that will impact both us and future generations. They can turn a blind eye to racism and hatred--or even encourage it.
But this is only half the story. Because for every conniving, misogynistic, misleading, corrupt, venal, and ultimately cruel politician, there's at least one lesser-recognized public servant who is quietly doing his or her best. There are good women and men elected to lead, care, and serve, who do just that.
It's important that we critique bad leaders and hold them accountable.
It's also important that we uplift and highlight those doing a good job.
There were a lot of remarkable people who shone their light this year. But to this island girl, Governor Mapp is the MVP of 2017.