Leading Teams in Disaster Recovery

Disasters bring emotion to the surface, they bring out the best in people and they bring out the worst.

Have you ever looked back on a disastrous situation and thought to yourself, what could I have done better? What if I just did that? Would the outcome have changed? Would we have arrived faster? Would more people still be with us?

Leading people who are recovering from a disaster requires us to put on a different lens. This lens often takes us outside of our comfort zone, into a place that brings us to the edges of our abilities as managers and as people. Let’s explore this…

What is Disaster Recovery? It is the recovery from an event or a situation that materially affects people either physically, emotionally, mentally, or all three. It can be experienced virtually, or as a community.

Preparation and Resilience

Being prepared for a disaster significantly decreases the cost of recovery. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates that for every $1 spent on preparedness $7 is saved in recovery.

Disaster simulation exercises also greatly improve the speed of the recovery. Organisation processes, tools and people are tested – highlighting both strengths and gaps. These exercises are also a good way to test you and your team’s resilience under pressure.

Spoiler Alert –  You may not have your best people available and
your best leader may not yet be known

Team Forming

Assessing who you have available to form a team with is essential. You may have no choice and your team may be selected for you. Either way you need to get them to being a cohesive productive unit as soon as possible.

This is where a pre-determined set of operating guidelines or a strong culture come into play. Organisations with a strong culture find it easier to  create ad-hoc and fluid teams because the principles of the way “we” work are well understood. If you have none of this or a completely new team then take the time to set the expectations early.

Conflict in some form will arise as you and your team progress. Be prepared for this and remember to lead by focusing on the people, they will get you through. Conflict can be a difference of opinion, a bruised ego, a different way of thinking or operating. Your challenge is to be open and to treat these conflicts as opportunities that may shine a light on a new way of approaching the recovery.

Once your team is really performing your role is to keep them there. Nourishment is the key: access to water, food, knowledge, a sense of worth, trust, and most importantly to know that they are being seen / heard for what they are doing.

At some point your team will have successfully recovered from the disaster and it will be time to move on. Publicly noting a return to a new normal and acknowledging team commitment is an important step in noting the completion of the recovery. Disasters and their recovery are significant events in people’s lives. Be prepared to support members of your team as they come to terms with the disaster and their recovery efforts. For some there will be a sense of finality, others mourning or grief, and for some it may be life transforming.

Focus on the People

Our natural tendency when recovering from a disaster is to focus on the problem, not necessarily the people fixing the problem. As managers and leaders it is our challenge to flip this around and focus on the people, not the problem. Only people will bring us back from a disaster. Our people. That is, the teams and individuals we invest so much time and energy into to maintain day-to-day order.

Three Critical Behaviours

The challenge that we face as leaders is that these very people may well have experienced the disaster and be directly and emotionally affected and they will naturally head toward their most instinctive behaviours. As will you.

These behaviours fall into a spectrum of people who step into a recovery effort, people who step out of a recovery effort and somewhere in the middle the people who observe. Think about the last time that you saw someone get hurt. Where did you naturally go. Did you get in and check that everything is all right, did you stand around to see what was going on, or did you glance at what was going on, surveying the situation and make a call on what needed to happen next? These are all natural behaviours, we all have them, they are all valuable. I call them the Step In, Observe, Step Out behaviours. As the leader of a disaster recovery team you need to have all of these types of people in your team or around you as you progress.


The Step In Behaviour

Gets stuck in, uses their practical skills to address a problem. Usually found touching the keyboard, building things, assisting people or telling people exactly what to do.

Beware of:

  • Running down rabbit holes
  • Long periods of silence
  • outbursts of anger


  • Conversation
  • Rest
  • Nourishment. 

The Observe Behaviour

Concerned, emotionally engaged. Generally the people standing in support.

Beware of:

  • Gossip
  • Distraction
  • Group think


  • Action
  • Finding an activity
  • Recording the story / decisions.

The Step Out Behaviour

Works the perimeter, looks to the surrounding environment. Picks up the little things. Engages when necessary.

Beware of:

  • Disinterest
  • False authority
  • Apathy


  • Bringing new ideas
  • Being the story teller
  • Keeping the supply chain healthy.

Self Care

A successful disaster recovery team will have felt that they have learned a lot, not that they have sacrificed a lot. Your challenge as leader is to have the same feeling once you have completed the recovery.

As a leader you need a good support structure and open lines of communication to your affected communities and the people who are making it possible for you to perform the recovery. These people are your champions. Choose your style of communication. Update when there is nothing to update. Meet when there is nothing to say. Absorb the wisdom of others. Sometimes we can be so close to a situation that we miss the obvious things.

Dealing with the pressure on your team and on yourself can be all consuming. In the early stages of the recovery there are a number of things that are being discovered and a number of responses required. The behaviours and level of certainty increases as time goes on. The adage that time is a great healer is a great fit for disaster recovery. Make time for your team and yourself to have downtime, set aside time / markers to reassess the frequency and effectiveness of this practice as your team progresses. Leaders need a break too, especially if there is no communication possible with the outside world.

The Leader’s Disaster Recovery Check List

Declare the Disaster – The only way to recover from a disaster is to declare one. Be specific in your reasoning and communicate widely. Doing this brings space and some level of leeway to recover. It is important, however to respect the limits of this goodwill. You can now begin recovery.

Breathe – In times of pressure your most important friend will be your breath. Three long, deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth will have a calming effect on your brain and body. It will give space for things to settle and new things to come along. Yes, it could even stop a primal emotional response.

Say OK – Repeat what has just been said. Give a qualified response to good and bad news. Saying OK gives you that moment you need – to think.

Avoid Group Think – Encourage outliers to speak up. Hear their opinions, watch how the team responds. Seek external information, experiences and / or advice.

Nourish Your Team – Keep your team fed, watered, stimulated, engaged and rested. A team that is well cared for will work better, for longer. The mix of the above elements will fluctuate dependent on resource availability though some of each assists in a healthy work ethic and good decision making.

Prioritise Sleep – Try to schedule time for everyone to sleep. Sleep deprived people cannot make the good decisions that are critical for a successful recovery.

Know What’s Next – Plan for your next step, revisit often. A goal setting approach will assist when things are going well and an open and honest conversation will assist when things are not.

Boost Morale – Be honest with your team, consider their opinions and weigh these up with experience and advice from others. Your understanding of your organisation’s appetite for risk will determine your options selection and temper the enthusiasm of your team. Offering a holiday to the person who works the hardest won’t necessarily get the results you need.

Find your Champion or Sponsor – Disaster recovery efforts are set to fail if nobody is backing you and your team up. It’s better off staying a disaster until someone wants to sponsor you and champion the recovery. Your sponsor will assist you to keep the weight of external pressure off your team and will be one of your conduits for communicating with the wider world.

Be clear about the Future – Paint a picture of the future, as it may / will be. Refine this as the recovery progresses. Be prepared to paint a completely new picture of the future, if required. Prepare people to accept that the future will not be the same as the immediate past.

In my experience disaster recovery is people based. Encourage and lead the right mix of people, doing the right things in the right timeframes and you have every chance of leading a successful recovery.

Further Reading

Group Dynamics (Bruce Tuckman) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuckman%27s_stages_of_group_development

Leading in Disaster Recovery, A Companion Through The Chaos (New Zealand Red Cross) http://preparecenter.org/resources/leading-in-disaster

Act Now, Save Later (UNDP) http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/ourwork/get_involved/ActNow.html