Leadership in a crisis

As the whole of the national capital region and neighboring provinces struggled to stay afloat on Tuesday (Aug. 20), the second day of the great deluge, I began seeing questions on Facebook and Twitter about the whereabouts of President Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino III.

From morning till evening, television networks broadcast footages of wide areas under water and rescue operations being undertaken by volunteers groups, the military and the police. On Monday, several towns and cities in Cavite, Pampanga and Bulacan were inundated, and it was basically each to its own for the LGUs in coping for the crisis.

The entire nation was shocked at the images that assaulted them on media, including the Internet, showing the magnitude of the floods. It was a scene never before seen in the country. In a word, “waterworld” became the common term to describe what had become of the affected areas. There was hardly any place which remained dry, as in not hit by floods. Even the business district, Makati City, submerged.

In the face of this calamity, the absence of the President on national television became more palpable. And this is what triggered a long thread of discussion on Twitter between Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Abigail Valte and several tweeps on the issue. One of those who tweeted quizzically was ABS-CBN reporter RG Cruz (@1RGCruz).

Valte tried to deflect the criticism on the President’s absence with her tweets. She said the President’s absence was not necessary because the agencies involved were doing his job. She got help from several tweeps. For two days, as the floods engulfed the national capital, the people didn’t catch a glimpse of the President, nor did they reassuring words from him

I insisted that a leader must be highly visible during a crisis. I got support from fellow blogger, Pastor Eyriche Cortez (@pastor_ey). But the defenders of P-Noy said the President would be criticized for being epal had he gone out on national media to assure the nation. Pastor Eyriche and I replied: that should have been the least of his worries.

Indeed, why is it that we want to see leaders at the forefront in times of crisis?

John Maxwell said: “A leader’s visible presence during times of crisis inspires confidence and gives others a sense of security.” It might be all about appearances, but in a crisis, that is all that matters. When two aircraft crashed into the World Trade Center twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, New York city mayor Rudy Giuliani set the tone for how to deal with crisis by being on the ground immediately. He took command of the situation, and for the next several days, directed the crisis management team and taking time to console the families of the victims.

The bottom line is that leaders cannot afford to go ‘below radar’ when there is a crisis. He is the rallying point for rescue workers and victims alike. A 5-minute appearance on national television could have gone a long way to assuage the fears of the people. In his case, P-Noy showed up on the third day, and his report on the state of the calamity wasn’t even new. The time for comforting and consoling had long passed.

I watched TV Patrol interview the flood victims, and one of them remarked that the few minutes she had seen the President bolstered her hopes that things would be okay. It validated this view that leaders need to be visible in times of crisis. The President might not be able to stop the floods, but at least he can show the people he is doing all he could.

There was a quote attributed to the President on why he made himself scarce during those two days. He didn’t want, he said, to be blamed if things went wrong. “Kung pumalpak kasi, ako ang sisihin,” he said. What kind of a leadership statement is that? In a crisis, a wrong decision is better than no decision at all. That statement is a give-away on the lack of leadership on his part.

Time and again, it’s been said that it takes a crisis to reveal the character of a leader. P-Noy was tested by this crisis. Unfortunately, he miserably failed.Image