Why Does Leadership Response to Disaster Always Suck?

I just heard on BBC that the Japanese government is only now dealing with the Fukushami nuclear problem appropriately. 

I’m a little surprised they responded this quickly.

  1. Obama golfing while Japan burns, Middle East rages, and Oil spikes
  2. The White House took weeks to treat the Gulf Oil Spill like a disaster
  3. The White House and FEMA treated Katrina like a local problem until long after disaster struck
  4. FEMA took weeks to bring relief to South Carolina following Hurricane Hugo (but did much better following Andrew)

Today—on the fifth day of crisis—Japanese utilities officials are still reluctant to ask for help, according to the AP:

Late Tuesday, officials at the plant said they were considering asking for help from the U.S. and Japanese militaries to spray water from helicopters into the pool.

It seems that foreign countries—away from the disaster scene—respond more appropriately to disasters than the affected countries do.  But this time, even the US president seems too aloof to bother with Japan.  In short, leaders just don’t seem to lead in disasters.


Is it because leaders are afraid to appear frightened?  Perhaps, but appearing indecisive seems even worse.

Is it because leaders overestimate their own country to deal with problems?  Perhaps, but many of the slow responders are leaders, like Obama, who believe no one can do anything without government supervision. 

Or is it because we have so many processes and procedures that we can’t respond? 

In The Fourth Turning, the authors describe Artist generations—particularly the Artists who comprise America’s Silent Generation—as process gurus who prefer following a defined process to producing good results. (Previous post.) The Carter administration was pack with Silent Generation.  So was George H. W. Bush’s.  Reagan preferred GI Generation, Clinton Silent and Boomer. 

If the authors are right, most of our institutions and agencies are saddled with 25 years of Silent Generation executive paperwork and process.  That would apply to every country involved in World War II, including, of course, Japan.

That’s a lot of process. That’s a lot of forms.  That’s a lot of red tape to cut through before grabbing the fire extinguisher and dowsing the flames.

Generation X is sometimes too quick to act. Fair point.  But when hell breaks loose it’s no time to fill out the right forms.  It’s time to by God act.