A Leadership Lesson from a Cold Southern Day

Image Credit: nickmickolas (Flickr)

Last week, much of the Southeastern United States was hit by an unusually cold snap of weather, the middle of which was punctuated by about 3 inches of snow on Tuesday.  This is the sort of weather that we see around here once every 2 to 5 years.  When the worst of the forecasts came true, it was, as we all know, madness.

It was a challenge for millions of people who were unable to travel on the frozen, untreated roads.  It was an ordeal for the thousands of people who abandoned their vehicles on the roadway to try and get shelter.  Things got so bad in Atlanta that one couple delivered their baby in the car on I-285.

Things were tough in Birmingham, as well.  Thousands of students were stranded overnight in schools.  Those who braved the ice faced commutes longer than the entire length of an average workday: It took my own mother 13 hours to get home.  Not a good situation.

In the aftermath, there’s been a lot of finger pointing.  This caused me to think about a key leadership lesson that was hidden under all of this snow.

That lesson is this: Sometimes you just can’t win. Allow me to explain:

Here’s the thing about extreme weather in the Southeast: Give us a 105 degree heat wave in the peak of the summer, and we’ll be just fine.  We know how to handle a stifling, humid summer day.  In fact, we’re so well adapted to it that heat waves barely seem newsworthy.

So the problem here wasn’t that we were hit with 3 inches of snow.  The problem here was that we almost never get hit with any snow whatsoever.  So when it happened, we didn’t know how to prepare for it (or drive on it, for that matter).

In a sense, we can never completely prepare for an event like this: This type of weather is so rare that it makes no sense for city and local governments to purchase and maintain a fleet of snow plows and other equipment.  This isn’t upstate New York, after all.

So with predictions of dire weather looming on the horizon, Government leaders were presented with a choice they have faced before: Do you spend taxpayer dollars on snow and ice that may not come, or do you play the odds and risk being caught flat-footed?

Let’s think about that.  Imagine the outcry if all this money is spent treating the roads – schools, businesses, and government offices are closed, and then nothing happens?  People would view that as an outright waste of their tax dollars and not be happy about it.

In 20/20 hindsight, we also know exactly what happens if you’re not prepared and the sky does indeed fall.

So if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, what do you do?

When faced with uncertain choices, a prudent leader chooses the least bad option, moves with authority to execute his or her decision, and after controlling everything that can be controlled, lets the cards fall where they may.

Leaders get too much credit when things go well, and too much blame when things go wrong.  It comes with the territory, and every leader would do well to embrace this concept.

Choosing the lesser of two evils might not be sexy, but it works.  Try it sometime.

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