Hurricane Management: Leadership and Followership in Dealing With Disaster

By John Yoest Published on October 15, 2017

And do not neglect doing good and sharing,
for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Hebrews 13:16

“We are dying here,” said the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Hurricanes flattened the island and knocked out communications and roadways. A generous nation responded and over 3,000 cargo containers were unloaded at the water’s edge waiting for transport.

It is true that Big Government can do Big Things, like win World Wars and put a man on the moon.

But sometimes, bigger is not better. Even when the challenge is enormous.

Disaster relief efforts require time, talent and treasure to deliver supplies. But in a tragedy where infrastructure is impassable, time is removed from this equation. Treasure was piled up in containers at the seaports. This leaves only talent to get food and water distributed before time runs out.

This is when leadership (inspiration) and management (execution) and followership (recommendations) are needed. Big government cannot do this all — and here Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” step in. Burke said that in society we live in small groups and these are “the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.”

The ‘many’ problem-solvers are focused, persistent and self-organized with no ego. This wisdom is needed in any hurricane aftermath.

The government and non-profits got supplies to the ports. But getting the supplies from the ports to actual people turned out to be a bigger challenge: ‘who’ would figure out the answer to ‘how’ to move the live-saving goods inland?

Wisdom of Crowds

Author James Surowiecki tells the story of the loss of the submarine USS Scorpion cited in Sherry Sontag’s Blind Man’s Bluff. Surowiecki writes that a number of people with limited data simply guessed, correctly, where the sub sank during the cold war. This diverse team was given the known set of facts and with more error than trial pinpointed the lost boat. Scorpion was found not at the direction of a Big Boss, but with a collective group and a desire to solve a challenge.

Surowiecki’s book updates Aristotle’s “wisdom of the crowd” in Politics. This is the assertion that “the many” have better judgment than individuals. The ‘many’ problem-solvers are focused, persistent and self-organized with no ego. This wisdom is needed in any hurricane aftermath.

Leadership and Followership

Henry Kissinger once explained the persuasion of leadership as the, “subtle accumulation of nuances, a hundred things done a little better.” These “hundred things” are not done by the leader alone.

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President Trump tweeted, in part, that hurricane recovery, “should be a community effort …” He was calling on the “little platoons.” Oddly, local leadership needs to not be more centralized and dictatorial, but less. Managers should encourage followership, and citizens must take action even in the absence of direction.

How can this be done?


The answer first came, not from business as one might think, but from the Church in response to government. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII gave a solution to this leadership challenge in the encyclical Rerum novarum. In this document the Pontiff outlined the doctrine of subsidiarity, where families and communities should be the first to address problems — not a political administration.

The best leaders push the decision-making down the organizational chart closest to the individuals doing the work. Followership takes the initiative for action. This idea of subsidiarity encourages citizens to anticipate what can happen in any event. Like ants finding a route, people embracing subsidiarity will clear an alternate path around a blocked road. Subsidiarity liberates people to think and to be ready with alternatives.

Just like David did when facing Goliath.

Then he … chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine. 1 Samuel 17:40

David knew he could handle Goliath with a single stone, and that he did. So why did he pick up five stones? Why the margin, the excess capacity and the extra combat load? He didn’t think that he would miss his target — so what was he thinking?

A road blocked by hurricane debris will not stop a determined team. This is community.

Goliath had four brothers. David was going to anticipate that no matter what the Giant, or his family, would do. David did not know how the giant’s kin would react to their brother’s death. Five potential adversaries. Five stones.

David was not going to wait and see and hope. He would be ready with any decision his opponent(s) made or with a random direction of fortune. David was not going to be controlled by outside circumstances. He would be ready.

And so must leaders and followers.

The Washington Post reports,

There was little to no aid coming in, so residents cleared the road themselves, made sure their neighbors were taken care of and prayed together in damaged churches.

A road blocked by hurricane debris will not stop a determined team. This is community.


Jack Yoest is Clinical Assistant Professor of Management at The Catholic University of America. He is a former Army officer and author of The Memo: How the Classified Military Document That Helped the US Win WW II Can Help You Succeed in Business.

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