In times of crises, we expect our leaders in government, the community and business to step up to do everything possible to manage the fallout of the crisis with a goal of mitigating any subsequent losses.
We expect them to be on site, taking charge, coordinating activities, and communicating clearly and thoroughly to those directly impacted. And most of the time, this is exactly what happens.
On the evening of Feb. 3, in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, a Norfolk Southern freight train left the tracks creating one of worst industrial and environmental disasters in recent history. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), 38 cars derailed and a fire ensued, damaging another 12 cars. There were 20 cars carrying hazardous materials, 11 of which derailed. This is easily defined as a crisis − an environmental crisis, a safety crisis, and now, a crisis of leadership.
As this was primarily caused by a transportation issue, one would think the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and other top staff would be on the scene within hours, ready with action plans to protect the citizens and contain the damage. Some representatives from the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) did arrive on the scene, but it was only two weeks later and amid public outcry, that Secretary Pete Buttigieg finally made a visit.
Since the track and equipment are owned by Norfolk Southern, one would also think the CEO and other top-level officers of the company would also be on the scene within hours. The president of Norfolk Southern did finally visit East Palestine: two full weeks later.
At a town hall meeting, local residents gathered to express their concerns about water and air safety. Hundreds showed up only to find that no one from Norfolk Southern bothered to attend.
How leaders respond to a crisis is oftentimes more telling than the crisis that occurred in the first place. Trying to “run out the clock” in hopes that public outrage will wane is rarely an effective strategy. When our leaders, whether in government or business, fail to respond in a timely manner, citizens rightfully feel they are not working for us.
In this case, Secretary Buttigieg and the executive leadership at Norfolk Southern need not only to take responsibility for the crisis, but also for their failure to respond to that crisis in a way that restores faith in their respective institutions. It seems that is finally happening, but the longer it takes, the harder it is to regain public trust.
photo, Phil Masturzo, Akron Beacon Journal
published, The Tennessean