Lessons in Leadership from the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

Lessons-in-Leadership-from-Fukushima-1024x440Three widely cited investigations of the Fukushima disaster — one by the Japanese government, one by an independent team of experts in Japan and a third by The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — have now concluded that the nuclear disaster of March 2011 was not, as it first seemed, the inevitable result of events no one could have predicted.

“It was a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented, said Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, established by the National Diet of Japan.

In an effort to understand what went wrong and what lessons in leadership the tragedy can offer, leaders directly and indirectly involved in the disaster spoke candidly at the Tokyo panel on Fukushima sponsored by Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL). Based on their presentations in Tokyo and the analyses of others in Japan and elsewhere, three areas emerge as essential to leadership in a crisis: preparation for emergencies, leadership style and communications.

Lesson 1: To prepare for the worst, leaders have to face up to what might actually occur.

Erwann Michel-Kerjan, managing director of the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at Wharton, says that Japan spent the years following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the nation’s last great crisis, diligently preparing for future disasters. Since many people died in train wrecks during the Kobe quake, the Japanese government re-engineered its entire railway system. As a result, just moments after the earthquake in 2011, and well before the tsunami hit, Japan’s high-speed bullet trains were successfully shut down, saving countless lives (no one died on trains on 3/11, says Michel-Kerjan).

But just as generals are sometimes faulted for “fighting the last war,” Japan’s mistake was preparing for a disaster like Kobe, which was far less severe and complex than Fukushima. The 3/11 earthquake was significantly more intense (9.0 vs. 7.2 on the logarithmic Richter Scale) and it not only badly damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant but also crippled the area’s power grid, cutting off the nuclear facility’s access to any off-site electricity.

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Originally Published October 3, 2013 by Knowledge@Wharton.