Flawed Crisis Response to East Palestine Train Derailment Underscores Importance of Showing Up

Presence is a Critical Part of Effective Crisis Leadership  

2/27/23 – – Woody Allen is credited with saying, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” Given the still worsening aftermath of this month’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, we could amend Mr. Allen’s observation to read: “Showing up is 80 percent of crisis leadership.”

In the hours after 38 train cars — 11 carrying hazardous materials — derailed on February 3 in this small town near the Ohio – Pennsylvania border, state and federal authorities began to arrive on scene to assist local first responders. Representatives of the State of Ohio Emergency Management Agency, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the train operator Norfolk Southern were on the ground.

Absent from view, however, were the leaders of these responsible entities. That void created an environment of uncertainty, mistrust and fear for the citizens of East Palestine, the media and people following the news across the country. There was a sense that no one was in charge.

Norfolk Southern, the corporate player in this saga and the recipient so far of the most blame and responsibility, made the decision not to send its President and CEO Alan Shaw to the scene until three days after the derailment. It’s hard to believe that a company’s crisis plan — especially a company that moves hazardous materials like vinyl chloride around the country every day — would not call for the CEO’s presence on-site within 24 hours of such a catastrophic situation.

Why does the CEO have to show up?

It’s a combination of good management and optics. Establishing a final decision maker where the action is, learning and interacting directly with experts in real time, makes a big difference in the timeliness and effectiveness of crisis response. And the leader’s presence sends a strong, comforting message of commitment and urgency. This is the company’s highest priority. We’re with you and are going to do everything we can to get things right.   

Having blown the opportunity to earn trust from day one, Shaw sent a letter to the citizens of East Palestine on February 16, two weeks after the event, stating: “I know you also have questions about whether Norfolk Southern will be here to help make things right. My simple answer is that we are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive.”

Shaw’s words seem hollow when you consider the fact that last week the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to conduct and pay for all clean up and recovery. If they don’t, the EPA will take over and charge Norfolk Southern three times the cost of the work. Announcing the order, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said, “Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they’ve inflicted on this community.”

If leaders think arriving late takes pressure off them, they’re mistaken. Every day a CEO delays showing up, expectations build that he or she will be coming with detailed answers and plans. The advantage of being in listening and learning mode erodes day by day. That’s the dynamic that made Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s visit last week to East Palestine so unsuccessful. Scenes of the Secretary being shown around and briefed by individuals who have been working around the clock for three weeks were offensive to local residents.

Showing up is not without risks.

In December 1984, a chemical leak at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, operated by Union Carbide India Limited resulted in thousands of deaths and more than 100,000 severe injuries to civilians living near the facility. Union Carbide’s chairman at the time, Warren Anderson, flew to Bhopal immediately following the accident to help with the company’s response and express regret.

Anderson was arrested. Thanks to some high-level diplomatic intervention, he was released on bail and flown out of the country on a government plane. Three years later, the Indian government charged him with manslaughter and summoned him back to the country to stand trial with other Union Carbide executives. Wisely, Mr. Anderson, who passed away in 2014, never returned to India.

Considering that Bhopal is still considered to be the worst industrial accident in history, Anderson’s initial leadership instincts to show up are even more impressive.

The East Palestine train derailment and the unsatisfactory responses by so many in authority provide a great opportunity to pull your leadership and crisis teams together to test the readiness of your own plans and protocols. Does your CEO buy into the importance of being present? Does your CEO have  a “go-bag” in his or her office at the ready should the need arise to show up who knows where, who knows when? Better to answer those questions now, rather than waiting for something within you company to go off the rails.

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