Flurry of Inactivity

One snowstorm reveals why leaders must be present in a crisis

by Daniel Markovitz

It won’t be long before snow starts to fall again. And as the weather cools, it reminds me of the blizzard that struck the New York City area last December and a lesson it can teach leaders everywhere.

In the wake of a 20-inch snowfall, Manhattan streets were plowed quickly, but streets in the outer boroughs remained unplowed for days. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg apologized, promised a thorough post-mortem of the poor municipal response, and then demoted and reassigned three people. The mayor’s approval ratings fell to the lowest point of his administration.

In New Jersey, where up to 31 inches of snow fell, Gov. Chris Christie took heat for vacationing at Disney World instead of returning to the state to help the recovery efforts. He made matters worse by defending his decision to put his responsibility to his family first.

"I wouldn’t change the decision even if I could do it right now," he said at the time. "I had a great five days with my children. I promised that."1 As a result, the governor’s nearly bulletproof image, constructed during a year of tough leadership and emphasis on taking responsibility, took a beating.

Getting out there

Then there was Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ. Booker personally responded to several calls for help, showing up with a shovel to help motorists who were stuck in the snow and bringing diapers to others.

The mayor provided constant updates on Twitter so people knew what he was doing, even asking citizens to tweet him about where help was needed. The mayor became a hero in Newark, despite facing a difficult reelection earlier in the year.

From a lean leadership perspective, what strikes me is the fact that only one of these leaders went to gemba—a Japanese term meaning "the real place." You could argue a mayor has better things to do with his or her time than shovel snow. But I disagree. People need to see—and, in the case of Booker, hear via Twitter—that their leaders are willing and able to work in the trenches.

Setting priorities

Of course, Bloomberg, Booker and Christie have higher-level leadership tasks to ensure these service failures don’t recur. But it’s important for everyone in the state, city or any organization to see that their leaders are present and doing everything they can to help ease their pain.

And if the problem is something that requires specialized skills the leader doesn’t have—such as shutting down a nuclear reactor, tunneling into a mine shaft or performing surgery—the leader should be supporting those that have the critical skills by bringing them whatever they ask for, whether it’s coffee and donuts or fresh bandages.

It’s no coincidence that a salient memory of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is him standing atop the World Trade Center rubble, while a lasting image of former President George Bush is him peering through the window of Air Force One several thousand feet above New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

No one expected Giuliani to spend all day, every day at the World Trade Center. No one expected Booker to spend all day, every day shoveling snow. But people do expect their leaders to at least be present where the work is being done for some amount of time.

One snowstorm, three leaders and one lesson: It’s essential for leaders to get out of the corner office or the conference room and go to gemba as part of their standard work. That need is even greater in an emergency.


  1. Beth DeFalco, "Gov. Christie Defends ‘Disney World’ Trip During Blizzard," Huffington Post, Jan. 1, 2011, www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/01/christie-florida-disney-blizzard_n_803170.html.

Daniel Markovitz is president of TimeBack Management in Corte Madera, CA. He earned an MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business in California. Markovitz is the author of the newly released book A Factory of One.

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