What Should Leaders Do in a Time of Crisis

  • Unprecedented rainfall in western Japan during 5-6 July 2018 created catastrophic flooding, damage and loss of life.
  • Japanese leaders, starting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, demonstrated the importance of effective leadership in handling ‘out of scale events’.
  • Noetic Group’s publication, Effective senior leadership in times of crisis, identifies effective leadership behaviour as essential to successfully managing a crisis, whether it be a natural disaster or a corporate failure.

– by Peter Murphy


In the western Japanese prefectures of Okayama, Hiroshima and Ehime, a rainfall of up to 500mm led to one of the worst floods in Japanese history. A weather official confirmed that Japan had ‘never experienced this kind of rain before’.[1] More than 220 people lost their lives[2]compared to similar torrential rain and floods in 1983 when 117 people died.[3] Over two million people were evacuated as businesses and homes were damaged or destroyed. The economic cost of the disaster is estimated at USD429 million.[4] An event of this magnitude and rarity can be classified as an ‘out of scale event’, one that is beyond the experience or conception of those who must deal with it.

As the Japanese crisis began to unfold, Prime Minister Abe made an important decision. He decided to postpone his planned visit to Europe and the Middle East. This sent a message to those managing the disaster, and to the wider Japanese community, that this situation was not ‘business as usual’. Prime Minister Abe’s presence ensured that he was available to the chain of command and provided reassurance to the community that the government was fully engaged in the crisis response. Noetic Group’s experience in reviewing ‘out of scale events’ shows that physical presence is an essential requirement for a successful strategic leader.

Japan has a comprehensive and well-structured emergency management system that allows warnings to be given to the community and senior leaders to allocate resources to incident controllers in the most critical areas. While there are concerns about the quality of warnings provided to the community, these warnings demonstrated that the severity of the event was appreciated by the Japanese leadership. Noetic’s review of major incidents shows that senior leaders often do not practice responding to ‘out of scale events’. In Japan, this is not the case. Leaders are trained through the annual National Disaster Prevention Day Drill held on 1 September to commemorate the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. The 2017 drill included the Prime Minister and his cabinet as well as 140 organisations and 3,000 people.[5] It is rare for the most senior leaders of a country to be as committed to preparedness for a disaster.

As Japan works through the process of recovery, and the necessary task of reviewing the response to the 2018 floods, it is likely that the lessons about senior leadership behaviour will be positive.  Active preparedness of senior leaders through training and drills, as well as a visible presence, demonstrate that ‘out of scale events’ can be well managed and that the cost to the community, while inevitably high, can be minimised.

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/hiroshima-japan-floods-today-death-toll-climbs-2018-07-09/
[2] https://weather.com/news/news/2018-07-31-japan-weather-heat-flooding-typhoon
[3] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/07/09/japan-floods-death-toll-rises-88-officials-warn-landslides/
[4] https://thediplomat.com/2018/07/japan-flood-recovery-efforts-hampered-by-heat-wave/
[5] https://japan.kantei.go.jp/97_abe/actions/201709/1article1.html