Leading Collaboration and Disaster Response

Photo by Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Malcolm McClendon. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Photo by Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Malcolm McClendon. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Rescue and recovery efforts related to Hurricane Harvey, which struck the Texas coast on Aug. 26, are likely testing the ability of numerous organizations to coordinate or collaborate effectively. 

People within all of these organizations—including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Homeland Security, the National Guard, state and local law enforcement, the fire service, and many others—have undoubtedly been working around the clock to help those in need. Like those professionals whom I’ve had the pleasure to know in these and similar areas of public service, these people are selfless, hardworking, and well-intentioned. 

Photo by Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Giles. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Photo by Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Giles. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

With any massive event like this, however, there are likely to be some frustrating issues related to how the various organizations interact. Who does what? Who is responsible for whom? How are resources shared—or not? Friction is almost certainly guaranteed due to the turbulent nature of the situation.

Although such friction may not be totally avoidable, we do seem to know a few things about organizations that helps us understand some of the factors that promote coordination and collaboration in these types of situations. Here are two of those factors:

  1. Deference to expertise. In addition to applying at the individual level—for example, giving authority to people in teams based upon their level of expertise on a given topic—we can think about this idea with regard to organizations overall. Some organizations are better equipped and trained to do certain tasks than others. Instead of fighting over decision-making authority, leaders within various organizations that are attempting to collaborate should defer such authority to organizations that have such expertise. For example, I could be wrong, but for matters related to water-borne rescue, the U.S. Coast Guard probably should be driving the show. 
  2. Organizational identity. In order for deference to expertise to work, an organization must have a clear idea about what it does well and what it does not do well. This requires a high level of intellectual honesty and humility among those who run such organizations. In planning and coordination meetings, for example, representatives from various organizations must be knowledgeable about not only what their organization can provide better than others—but also be willing to concede that other organizations have their own specific areas of expertise. 
Photo by Air National Guard Master Sgt. Matt Hecht. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.   

Photo by Air National Guard Master Sgt. Matt Hecht. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement. 
 

Leaders at all levels within responding organizations would be well served to keep these ideas in mind and act accordingly. I’m sure many of them already are doing so. 

But as the work in Houston and surrounding areas goes on—not for weeks and months, but likely years—these are principles that will continue to apply. 

These are tough times for those affected by Harvey. And Hurricane Irma is currently building strength in the Atlantic. If you’re fortunate like me to not be directly affected by these events, consider donating to a charity that is helping. Here’s a list of such groups from the New York Times.


About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.

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