What Superstorm Sandy Taught Me About Leadership

Almost a year ago, my wonderful home state of New Jersey was hit by a brutal hurricane. Superstorm Sandy obliterated our beaches, caused billions of dollars worth of damage, and left family, friends, and many others without power for days or weeks. While I was lucky enough to not have been severely effected based on my location, the little beach town I lived in during graduate school didn’t fair as well. It was a blow to the whole community that is New Jersey and we’re still recovering from it (but we’re strong and always will be). One of our main beaches, Seaside, was hit even further recently after a savage fire destroyed a large portion of the boardwalk. Wiring affected by Sandy was the cause of that as well. Poor little New Jersey needs a break.

The sad state of the boardwalk at Ocean Grove, NJ where I used to live

The sad state of the boardwalk at Ocean Grove, NJ where I used to live

The roller coaster from the Seaside Heights pier is in the ocean

The roller coaster from the Seaside Heights pier is in the ocean

The Seaside Heights boardwalk that I grew up going to.

The Seaside Heights boardwalk that I grew up going to.

Because I work in child welfare, many people in my office are considered “essential” employees. This means that they have to work regardless of what disaster is happening which makes sense considering rates of abuse, neglect, and domestic violence tend to rise in times like this. While my particular role isn’t essential, I was specifically asked, along with five others, to assist the state’s emergency planning unit and FEMA the Saturday and Sunday after the storm.

Let me tell you, when I got that call on Friday night I was extremely confused about what I’d be doing, but excited none-the-less. The next day I rolled up to the state police headquarters, affectionately known as the ROIC (pronounced “rock”), and wandered around until someone told me where to go. Then, I kid you not, I walked into a room that looked like NASA’s headquarters. I felt like I was in a movie as I watched people running around with a giant screen portraying the most affected areas at the very front of the room. It was the most awesome and terrifying thing I’ve ever seen.

The ROIC. Doesn't it remind you of NASA in the movies?!

The ROIC. Doesn’t it remind you of NASA in the movies?!

From there, I went on to help coordinate resources that people were requesting. Resources included everything from cadaver dogs (awful, I know) to gas cans or food. The list of items was so extensive it was almost unbelievable. There were tons of agencies all working together to coordinate and provide these items as quickly as possible. My job was originally supposed to just help organize these items, but I decided to volunteer to lead instead (because, ya know, why not?). I went from printing things off the computer to managing our efforts in order to make it all more efficient and effective. While I’m crazy for jumping in on the toes of emergency management workers when I only had a slight idea of what the heck I was doing, I think I did a good job at getting everyone back on track after it was clear things were a little disoriented. I also learned an amazing amount about being a leader in those two short days. Here are the most important things I learned.

To be an effective leader, you need to understand the importance of organization. When I first got there, the resource lists were in shambles. There was no clear cut system that let everyone know who was doing what. Honestly, disorganized is putting it lightly (I’ll cut them some major slack though considering this was one of the first huge crises New Jersey has really had). In order to really lead you need to make sure everything is organized and you know who is doing what and how they’re doing it. This doesn’t mean micromanaging. Being organized simply allows you to properly delegate tasks and get your projects done more effectively and efficiently.

Be willing to take a chance. No one became a leader by being quiet and sitting in the back. You have to be willing to take a chance and stand up for what you believe (and what I believed was that things could be done slightly better). When they asked if anyone wanted to take charge, I shyly put my hand up and said I would. I think people were surprised, but it helped me gain respect from my colleagues, and those awesome emergency workers, when they realized I knew what I was doing. (One coworker even thinks I should go into the field of emergency management now!) Don’t be afraid to jump in feet first sometimes.

Learn to keep your cool. Being a leader means having the ability to keep calm under pressure. That’s especially true in crisis situations like this. Was I completely overwhelmed at first and unsure what I had gotten myself into? Absolutely! I didn’t let it show though. It will definitely get hard at times, but take a deep breath, pull yourself together, and keep on moving.

Just because someone is older or has been there longer doesn’t mean they know what to do/the best way to do it. Don’t let age or perceived experience get in your way. I was the youngest one there with no history in emergency management, but I did have a background in risk management so I stepped up to organize the mess. While it can sometimes be difficult to get past the “I don’t have enough experience” issue, try if you can. Oftentimes, your fresh new look will help revitalize the team and make you a stronger and better leader.

Put your faith in your team and their capabilities. The biggest problem with how things were originally set up was there was no faith in the team members. They constantly had to check back with the supervisor and be given new tasks. However, I was working with grown adults who had great careers and were more than capable of handling this type of project. Once we got everything in order, I put my faith in them that they could pick up a piece of paper, talk to the right people, and document whether or not they had finished the project. And you know what; they did that and a lot faster than they originally were. They even commended me on giving them so much responsibility and believing they were competent (which should have been quite obvious from the beginning, but I guess that’s the difference in management styles between the police force and social workers). If you don’t learn to trust your employees and colleagues, it’ll be hard to lead them. Learn to let go a little bit so that real work can be done.

Now it’s your turn.  Have you ever jumped into a leadership role with no experience?  How did you learn to lead effectively?

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