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Yingluck's Big Adventure: A Lesson in Crisis Management
15-Nov-11 [ by Larry Chao ] 14839 Read and 88 Comment

Nothing tests the mettle of effective leadership more than a crisis situation.

Over these past several weeks‚ Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her leadership team have faced such a test‚ as four billion cubic meters of water have poured towards Bangkok‚ submerging  industrial estates‚ villages‚ and rice fields along the way.

As of this writing‚ the seasonal peak tides have come and gone and the biggest threat of flooding to the center of Bangkok seems to have passed.

But neighboring communities such as Thonburi‚ Ayutthaya and Pathum Thani have been devastated by floodwaters‚ and low lying districts within Bangkok proper remain vulnerable to residual flooding.

All of this chaos begs the question: what could the government have done better to prevent this mess?

To be fair‚ the heavy rains and severe flooding presented an unprecedented challenge.  Past years of lethargic flood management and neglect did not help matters.

Unfortunately‚ flood waters see no boundaries and do not play favorites.  Their destructive powers can create a crisis that exposes the weakest links of any leadership team.  

This is precisely what has happened to us.  

As I reflect on our government's current leadership performance‚ there are four lessons that stand out.

First‚ there seemed to be a lack of unified direction.  Throughout this crisis‚ there did not seem to be a single plan.  Our leaders had weeks to anticipate and develop a comprehensive plan to protect our communities.  Yet when the floodwaters came‚ they spent most of their time on firefighting‚ rather than executing a preventative strategy.

At the end of the day‚ the piles of devastation - submerged factories‚ swamped houses‚ people swimming in the streets - spoke volumes of how ill-planned we were to combat nature's rage.  It looked as if we were blindsided by sudden flooding with no warning.  In hindsight‚ the government could have planned more rigorously and executed more forcefully.

Second‚ a fragmented leadership team contributed to the problem.

At one point Bangkok Governor MR Sukhumbhad Paribatra seemed to be calling the shots as to when and how much to open the sluice gates that would allow flood waters to drain though Bangkok canals.  Then suddenly it was Yingluck‚ invoking the Disaster Prevention Mitigation Act‚ and taking charge. 

Who was really in charge and why was the plan suddenly changed?  When and how much water was actually going to pour into Bangkok?  In the absence of a cohesive team approach‚ no one seemed to have a grip on what was really happening.

There were a variety of opinions and little evidence of a coordinated effort that would reassure the general public that our leaders were all on the same page.  Even now‚ there are disagreements that confuse‚ rather than reassure.

Third‚ inconsistent communication exacerbated uncertainty‚ confusion and frustration.  For example‚ were we suppose to believe Bangkok Metropolitan Administration official Narong Jirasappakunakorn's guarantees that Bangkok would not flood‚ or Justice Minister Pracha Promnok's less certain prediction that Bangkok would not be hit?

How about Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi's erroneous warning that the sluice gates had burst and water was pouring into northern Bangkok?  There were so many mixed messages‚ rumors and predictions changing daily that people did not know who to believe.  

People were so jittery that even when Sukhumbhad told people‚ "be alert‚ but don't panic‚" people panicked anyway and either stockpiled supplies‚ or bolted from the city.

Finally‚ indecisiveness hampered efforts to cope with the floods.  In many cases‚ there simply wasn't enough time to prepare and react.  Witness the hundreds of new automobiles floating in floodwaters outside Honda Motor Co factories in Ayutthaya.  There should have been enough time to drive these cars off the lot and onto higher ground.

Last month's flooding crisis in Thailand was tough‚ but our leaders could have done better.  They could have worked more closely together on a single agenda and communicated more consistently.  Nothing was certain‚ but had they been more informed and decisive‚ maybe they could have minimized the damage and fear.

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