How to be a better leader in a disaster

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Catastrophe can strike anywhere, and when it does, your leadership will matter more than the specifics of your business-continuity plan

Linda Goodspeed, vice president of IT at Nissan North America, was attending a global IT meeting at her company's head office in Japan on March 11 and was caught in the magnitude 9.0 earthquake. The quake was among the top seven most powerful ever recorded and the strongest ever to hit the country. "People were diving under desks. Women were crying. We could see fire outside," she says. "Window blinds were moving three feet to the left and to the right. I thought the building would fall apart."

Goodspeed wasn't hurt, and, to her surprise, panic didn't prevail. Her Japanese colleagues "went into repair mode," she says, making sure visitors were OK, leading them to chairs in quiet rooms and providing comfort. "To see people execute on this was amazing." (For tips on how to do this, see "4 Steps to Help Your IT Team When Disaster Strikes.")

Her experience illuminates what may be an underappreciated aspect of disaster response: the preparation of corporate leaders and the workforce to handle intense, maybe unprecedented, pressure. CIOs are often initial responders to corporate emergencies, and they should understand the psychology of stress every bit as well as their IT contingency plans.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of opportunities to practice. As companies integrate their operations with others' around the world, they must prepare for a steady stream of trouble. CIOs have to consider the business and social turmoil that can be triggered by world events, including unpredictable natural disasters, social unrest and war—thousands of miles away from headquarters, perhaps, but nevertheless front and center.

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