Early Saturday morning, July 6th, a runaway train filled with oil headed for a refinery in New Brunswick exploded, levelling the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Authorities believe that between 40 and 60 people are missing or dead.
The story is devastating. But more devastating is the lack of leadership demonstrated by Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway. Mr. Burkhardt has been busy on the phone and television blaming everyone – vandals, firefighters, everyone except his organization. He finally stepped foot in Lac-Megantic on Wednesday, five days after the explosion. Meanwhile the Transportation Safety Board is investigating, and police are treating the town as a crime scene.
Mr. Burkhardt has contradicted local officials and other spokespeople from his own company. He has been a lesson in what NOT to do during a tragedy. He is coming across as a self-serving jerk, who is trying to deflect blame before the evidence is gathered. He seems to have no concern that up to 60 people are dead and a town has been destroyed.
So what would a good leader do?
He would first get some perspective. Blame can wait for later. He needs to acknowledge the loss of life and the loss of a community. He needs to be visible, to be on the ground in Quebec, to see the pain and devastation in person.
Then, a good leader would work with authorities to gather evidence, and work with his organization to understand the evidence. He would acknowledge any part his organization played in causing the tragedy. And he would publicly work with his organization to implement policies and processes to reduce the likelihood of another tragedy. Good leaders avoid blame, they listen, the take action, and they are visible.
Good leaders care about people first.