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Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham is the editor of On Leadership and writes features for the section.

On Leadership Editor

Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham is the editor of On Leadership and writes features for the section.
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Japan: Two stages of disaster

Mere hours before Friday’s earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, Prime Minister Naoto Kan was busy explaining in a parliamentary committee session that he would not resign over illegal campaign contributions. Kan already faced widespread criticism from the Japanese public even before the recent scandal, with a 20 percent approval rating since his election this past June.

Yet as the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall points out, the actions Kan takes throughout the unfolding tragedy have the potential to recast his role and could cement him more firmly as leader-in-chief of the ravaged country. In recent years Japan has struggled to find any political figure to unite behind; Kan being the sixth prime minister Japan has seen over a five-year span, not to mention Kan’s own foreign minister resigned earlier in the week over a similar funding scandal.

Media coverage of the disaster is one small indication of the immediate shift in public image that such tragedy can shepard in. Few pieces on the devastation in Japan even mention the scandal that dominated news of Kan and his Cabinet before the quake, instead mentioning only Kan’s rallying remarks on Sunday that “our country faces its worst crisis since the end of the war 65 years ago,” and, “I’m convinced that working together with all our might the Japanese people can overcome this.”

That tragedy sets the stage for a powerful exercise in leadership and rhetorical showmanship is nothing new. In times of crisis, from war to terrorist attacks to natural disasters, people look for order and hierarchy amidst a reality dominated by chaos.It is at these times that figures who to date were only leaders in name have the opportunity to prove their mettle, as we may perhaps be witnessing with Japan’s Naoto Kan.

A piece published by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky in the Harvard Business Review explores the phenomenon of leadership during sustained crisis, analyzing the 2008 economic downturn and its lingering aftermath--yet a similar concept is at work even during a natural disaster like Japan’s. Their research describes two crisis leadership stages: an emergency phase and an adaptive phase. The first is about stabilizing the situation, and the second about addressing the root causes and constructing a supportive architecture for the new reality. In the case of Japan, Kan has stepped quickly and by most accounts successfully into the emergency leadership role, as the government reacts to a climbing death toll, now estimated to exceed 10,000, and attempts to rescue the numerous others who are missing amidst the rubble.

But it is during the fast-approaching adaptive phase--once the immediate shock and triage has settled, and once the full scale of Japan’s new reality has set in--that the prime minister’s leadership is more likely to hang in the balance. Thousands of homes and commercial buildings have already been destroyed, not to mention the country’s damaged infrastructure and nuclear plants put Japanese citizens at further serious, long-term risk. People are unlikely to point fingers about the causes of such devastation--particularly when, as Bruce Parker, professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology and author of The Power of the Sea, says: “The Japanese are probably more prepared than anybody for this type of disaster.” Still, managing the aftermath of such an event provides endless opportunity for leadership pitfalls.

As Japan enters this second phase of crisis and begins to address the public health, housing, safety and fiscal problems this devastation will quickly create, Kan will need to shift his leadership mandate from creating order to creating progress. Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky write: “The adaptive phase is especially tricky: People put enormous pressure on you to respond to their anxieties with authoritative certainty, even if doing so means overselling what you know and discounting what you don’t.” Whether the prime minister will resist the temptation to oversell and discount--and can instead succeed in using his new-found voice to call for the right set of actions to help the country rebuild, renew and recover--will be the ultimate litmus test for his ability to lead Japan longer and better than his recent predecessors.

Lillian Cunningham  | Mar 13, 2011 6:10 PM

 
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