What can leaders learn from a wrestling match with Mother Nature?
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the second-largest volcanic eruption of the past century and by far the largest eruption to affect a densely populated area, which occurred at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines on June 15, 1991. The eruption produced high-speed avalanches of hot ash, gas, giant mudflows, and a cloud of volcanic ash hundreds of miles across.
The eruption took everyone by surprise, yet no military members lost their lives in the evacuation of 15,000 people from Clark Air Force Base, due largely to the work of those whom Air Force Historian, C.R. Anderegg, dubbed “The Ash Warriors.”
Typically, the duty of crisis action team commander falls to the installation’s vice wing commander, in this case, then-Colonel Anderegg. Although he had no training in volcanology and limited experience in crisis management, Anderegg successfully led the Ash Warriors in their valiant race against time and Mother Nature’s nasty attempts at harm.
Anderegg, the Ash Warriors, and the senior leaders of the 13th Air Force may have had little experience in fighting volcanoes, but they had one other distinguishing attribute: excellence.
I recently spoke with Anderegg about his role and that of the Ash Warriors in managing crisis. He said that three critical issues helped them answer the daunting question: “How do we evacuate 15,000 people in six hours?”
- Confidence in leadership. The Ash Warriors had spent their careers learning that when you have confidence in your leaders, the most overwhelming tasks can be accomplished. Anderegg relied on Major General Studer, the commander of the 13th Air Force, and those in Anderegg’s chain of command depended on the officers and NCOs who gave the orders. People didn’t waste time asking, “Why should I trust you?” They had confidence.
- Training. Air Force personnel don’t spring forth fully formed and ready to face adversity. The Air Force makes them. Although they had never faced the perils of an erupting volcano, the Ash Warriors had confronted hurricanes and typhoons. Those oft-practiced skilled helped them rise to the challenge of evacuating Clark.
- Discipline. Through confidence in the leadership and training, military personnel develop the discipline to ask themselves, “What is my part?”
When organizations face hiring and promotion decisions, too often they weigh experience disproportionately against excellence. A pattern of this kind of decision-making eventually jeopardizes the confidence employees must develop in their leaders. If you further exacerbate the situation with little training, you can’t hope to develop a results-oriented culture of discipline.
Sometimes the crisis you face will present unprecedented challenges, just as the eruption of Pinatubo did. The Air Force had no experience in evacuating a military base that was under siege from a mountain, because it had never happened before. But they did have the leaders of the 13th Air Force, Dick Anderegg, and the Ash Warriors-all examples of excellence by any measure.
Take that Mother Nature!