NAED National Virtual Meeting: Leadership in Times of Crisis

NAED National Virtual Meeting: Leadership in Times of Crisis

At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, nearly every state in the country determined that electrical distributors are an essential business. At the beginning of his address to NAED at the National Virtual Meeting, former Pennsylvania governor and Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge reminded us that it has been that way for decades. Governor Ridge said when he became the head of Homeland Security, one of his first decisions was to protect electricity. “This is a group of businesses that we identified early on with Homeland Security as critical and needed to be protected,” Ridge said. “Your industry is at the epicenter of our security and our electric grid. Your supply chains have been interrupted and deliveries have had to be adjusted. But as you can see by my background, my lights are still on.”

Ridge spend a majority of his speech to NAED talking about crisis leadership and helping the people who work around you survive the crisis. “Like many of you, I have had a little more spare time than I anticipated,” Ridge explained. “And I spent some of it reading about my favorite historical political figures. One of my favorites is Winston Churchill, and one of my favorite quotes that I refer to from time to time is ‘when you are going through hell, keep going’. It’s hell dealing with the adjustments you’ve had to make with regard to the national response to the COVID crisis. Adjustments you’ve had to make personally. Adjustments your company has had to make.. And within all of those, the adjustments that all of your employees have had to make.

“I have always felt that it’s very important to understand that the value you bring as a leader is dependent on resourcefulness, the energy, and the commitment you get to that shared sense of mission by your employees. It’s a consistency of message, and an appreciation, from your perspective, of their value to you and your organization, that you continue to work through all the restraints put on us because of this crisis.”

During 30 minute speech, Governor Ridge explained that while leaders must show empathy for employees, he feels empathy for leaders who are dealing with so many complicated issues at one time.

“I have some empathy for you as leaders. You have operational concerns, short-term and long-term. Liquidity concerns. Supply chain concerns. And you have your own families to be worried about. But if you are putting the employees first, they are the ones who bring value to your organization, and it doesn’t hurt to remind them from time to time. Right now teamwork is more essential  than any time in the past. It’s that consistency of message the appreciation of the shared responsibility, and frankly the value of everyone in that chain of employment in that organization from the warehousemen to the delivery drivers up to the CEO. It’s good to remind the men and women with whom you work that you appreciate and understand their anxieties. You probably have the same ones.”

Ridge pointed out that when he had to deal with the Anthrax scare in 2001, he was dealing with something he knew very little about. “Within days after it arrived, we are dealing with this on a national issue. Now do I know anything about anthrax? Nope. Am I briefed up pretty quickly? Absolutely. But you have to say to yourself nobody is looking to you to be an expert. But they are looking to you to put together a team that can address the issue in a very calm, dispassionate, realistic way. And know that you have people around you who want to make a difference.

Ridge strongly recommended that leaders reassure employees and customers that you are confident that together you can work through this crisis. “I believe that America is a really resilient country,” Ridge added. “If you look at our history, we have been challenged many times and on many fronts. There will be some learning, that’s pretty clear. We probably have to adjust, out of necessity and out of the very positive learnings of some of the things we’ve done in response to COVID-19. The culture of resiliency, that you have built into your enterprises, just needs to be reaffirmed during these challenging times. The attitude of confidence is now more important than ever. Regardless of external events changing, people are relying on you for leadership, and the message needs to be the same. And that is one of confidence and reassurance and empowerment. Its a culture that hopefully you have created your organization. You have the same vision regardless of the external circumstances.”

He also praised the work governors are doing across the country, saying, “We will be a different country, but hopefully a better and stronger country.” He also said 6 years ago, a committee that included himself and five others started taking a look at bio-defense issues, and pointed out some gaps and vulnerabilities we had at the time. Ridge believes if the government had followed the list of recommendations, we would have had a better response to the COVID-19 crisis. “But this is not the time to say we told you so, it’s the time to say, ‘OK, here’s where we are, and here’s what we need to get through this, and here’s what we need to be better in the years ahead’. There’s a game plan sitting on shelves in Washington, D.C. The number 1 recommendation we made 6 years ago was on a permanent basis, the Vice President of the United States should be in charge of overseeing the changes necessary to close the gaps and reduce the vulnerabilities on bio defense. Oversee the strategy. Oversee where the dollars are going. Oversee building a stronger public health system. Overseeing research and development. These are things that we can do. I am not being critical because democracies rarely take action to prevent a crisis that no one can foresee. After this crisis, if we are honest with ourselves, we need to be in better position to deal with it. It’s a national security threat. We need to accept that it’s a vulnerability and we need to make changes in how we do business in the future.

“We have talked in the past decade or two about the globalization of finance, the globalization of transportation, the globalization of communication, but now there is a globalization of disease. The notion that we need to put everything on hold and be standing still until we eradicate or substantially reduce exposure to this as opposed to rapidly re-open the economy, both extremes are wrong. And I think we have to find that balance. Part of the messaging is if we lay out a sequencing where we work with our science and our medical community, and we sequence out various aspects of the economy, I don’t see that conversation going on right now. COVID-19 is going to be a permanent virus, and humanity is going to be dealing with it a long time.”

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