In March we watched in awe and horror as Japan suffered one of the greatest catastrophes in modern times. It began with an earthquake of monumental proportions. Next came a tsunami that had warning sirens going off around the Pacific Rim. The two disasters compromised several nuclear reactors and the fear of meltdowns swept around the world. If you lived in Denver, you were safe from the first two, but the meltdown threatened to affect the entire planet. Now the disasters have begun to strike close to home. Massive tornadoes struck America’s south, killing dozens, if not hundreds of people in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia. And along the Mississippi River, hundreds of families have lost their homes as the river continues to rise reaching record-level crests.
Without a doubt, business leaders, today face challenges unparalleled in history. With the speed of social media and practically everyone having access to news, information, statistics and feedback, business is moving at a pace that changes our outlook in a matter of seconds. Careers are destroyed with the click of a button. Ask Gilbert Gottfried, who was the iconic voice of the AFLAC duck, how fast he was fired after he tweeted a joke about the events in Japan.
To know how to react to economic and personal disasters takes an understanding of their severity and scope. Earthquakes cause different damages and changes than do tsunamis and meltdowns. You can’t change the circumstances, but you can understand their consequences and adjust your reactions.
Earthquakes shake the very foundations of your business and personal life. They tear down the old models and force you to rebuild or reinvent in a stronger incarnation. The publishing industry has taken a major hit with the advent of e-readers, Kindles, Nooks and tablet notebooks, like the iPad. Much the same way that the record industry took a tumble with the advent of file sharing through iTunes and Napster.
Bill Clinton went through an earthquake two years into his presidency when the Republican Party took control of both houses of the US Congress. He reinvented his management style and cooperated more. Two years later he was re-elected to office easily. Will Barack Obama be able to do the same thing after facing his own earthquake in November 2010? Probably so. After the death of Osama Bin Laden, President Obama’s popularity is soaring.
Tsunamis sweep across the land and change the terrain forever. Whole cities and coastal farmlands were wiped out by the tsunami last month. Rebuilding has to be done from the ground up. In business, a tsunami occurs when the business changes so much you can’t continue at all in the same way you did before. Reinventing yourself has to be on a grand scale. The automobile industry has been forced to start producing cars based on new models to consumers who want more fuel efficient, more technologically advanced and more comfortable than ever before. The advent of the Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius (which just passed one million in sales of models) and the Ford Focus is evidence of this trend.
Tiger Woods recently faced a tsunami in his personal life. His on-going recovery is a reinvention of himself. He is concentrating on his golf game and making himself more “human” in the eyes of his fans and the public. Recently the traditionally reclusive athlete has appeared on late-night talk shows poking fun at himself.
Meltdowns destroy everything in the area. Nothing, according to scientists and environmentalists can be rebuilt in the same location. Look at the area around the disastrous Chernobyl reactors. Ghost towns and uninhabitable conditions prevail even today. Business leaders who face meltdowns need to understand that they can’t fight this kind of change in the same way as the other disasters. MySpace.com has never recovered from the emergence and popularity of Facebook. Will Blackberry be able to adjust to the meltdown of Androids and iPhones? It remains to be seen. Most wireless stores carry Blackberries, but few are buying them.
Lindsey Lohan and Charlie Sheen are facing meltdowns in their careers. Rather than reinventing themselves, they are fighting the “radioactive waste” they are causing in their own lives. Leaders need to see where they are miss-stepping and avoid the pitfalls of self-sabotage. Watch what they say and do and understand that everyone is watching. Or they will never recover.
Historically, Richard Nixon faced an earthquake when he was defeated in the presidential election of 1960 by John F. Kennedy. He faced a tsunami in California running for national office in 1962. He recovered and reinvented himself six years later to win the presidency against Hubert Humphrey. But he was brought down by the meltdown of Watergate in 1974. His own personal sabotage spiraled him out of office and into a life of self-seclusion and shame.
When you face change and catastrophe you can reinvent yourself and your business, but you must first determine what level the damage is, what you have to reassess and where you need to begin your reinvention. You can do it, but you must act differently to meet the new and different challenges.