The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster in March 2011, which began after an earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, was the worst radioactive accident since the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986.

More than two years after the nuclear meltdown, toxic radioactive chemicals continue to leak into the Pacific Ocean while Japan asks for the world's help.

Although the disaster was originally deemed an accident, officials with the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission claim the explosions and leaks were due to poor leadership and management. "It was a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented," Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a chairman of the commission, told the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania during a recent panel discussion on Fukushima.

The leadership lessons from the disaster are many. Knowledge@Wharton, the school's blog, rounded up a number of observations from the lead investigators' presentations on how to lead effectively through chaos. Here are three tips to keep in your back pocket:

Prepare for worst-case scenarios.

In 1933, an earthquake hit Japan triggering a tsunami of comparable strength to the one in March 2011. The Fukushima power plant was built on the known fault line, disregarding the area's own history--it's a known fact that about every 100 years a big earthquake hits and a tsunami follows. But the Fukushima disaster was so extreme because Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) did not prepare for the worst--there was no plan for how to prevent a meltdown after reactors break and the electrical grid fails.

Don't think it can't happen to you, says Howard Kunreuther, the co-director of Wharton's Risk Management and Decision Processes Center. The worst does happen to every business--it's just a matter of when. To help prepare for disaster, he says, “stretch time horizons, so you don't just think about the likelihood of this occurring next year but over a period of years." Look over the next 20 years, and prepare for what could happen.

Don't try to control--look for answers.

During a crisis, leaders need to make decisions quickly, with limited information. Prime Minister Kan got caught up in the details, refused to delegate, and contributed to further confusion after the meltdown, says Kenichi Shimomura, former chief spokesman for Kan. Instead of making decisions, he tried to collect all the facts first. During a disaster, facts will be scant. If you are a leader, you'll have to do without them. Eric Feldman, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says your job is to encourage ideas, blunt communication, and delegate decision-making to people "on the ground" in the disaster.

Practice your reaction.

After the reactors started to leak, Prime Minister Kan told the public that only people living in a three-kilometer radius of Fukushima had to evacuate. But when he got more information, he changed it to 10 kilometers, then 20. The public did not trust Kan and believed he was downplaying the crisis. Erwann Michel-Kerjan, managing director of the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at Wharton, said that Kan should have taken notes from former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani's leadership during the September 11 attacks. Before 9/11, Giuliani had rehearsed large-scale crisis management four times a year. When Michel-Kerjan works with companies, he asks the CEO to go through disaster rehearsals. "When you look at companies that have handled crises well every one of them has had conventional and unconventional rehearsal exercises quite a few times, typically with the CEO present," he says.

Published on: Oct 8, 2013