Have you ever unexpectedly found yourself in a crisis when you weren’t prepared? Or a time when you expected someone else to be in charge and instead found out you were responsible? Well, let me tell you what happened to me…

First, let me start by stating the views and opinions expressed in this post are those of myself and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of Pasco County, Hillsborough County, the State of Florida, or the U.S. government.

Well, in 2017, I found myself in that exact situation.

Now I know you’re wondering, what happened? Right?

Well, there was this little storm called Hurricane Irma…

Hurricane Irma was a catastrophic storm causing devastating damage to the Caribbean and Florida.

The Category 5 hurricane reached its peak with winds recorded at 185 mph, making it the strongest hurricane of our time.

Irma caused catastrophic damage to Barbuda, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Martin, Anguilla, and the Virgin Islands.

When the storm reached the Florida Keys, Irma was a Category 4 with 130 mph winds.

The predicted track of the storm would bring Irma through the center of Florida and cover the entire state.

In preparation for Irma, my worksite was activated as a shelter for evacuees.

When I arrived at our site to begin shelter preparations, I was greeted by 30 evacuees and several volunteers.

When I asked if the Red Cross had arrived, the answer was a disappointing no!

After waiting two hours, I was informed the Red Cross would not be available.

According to protocol, once the shelter is activated, it is to be staffed and operated by the Red Cross.

However, due to Hurricane Harvey’s impact on Texas and the size of Irma, the Red Cross was not available to run the shelter.

As a shelter, our primary function was to provide a clean and safe facility for evacuees.

Well, you know what happened next. Everyone looked at me to lead them!

As the site leader, I was expected to run the shelter.

Fortunately, a Red Cross “shelter box” had been dropped off.

As I stood there looking at the box, volunteers and evacuees, I had a difficult choice to make.

What was the choice?

Option A – I could step up and lead or…

Option B – I could wring my hands and complain.

Which option do you think I chose?

Well, you know which option I chose… Option A of course. Why? Because leaders lead!

I also understood I would be wasting precious time wringing my hands and complaining because I would still be in charge!

So, I broke the seal on the Red Cross box and we officially opened as a shelter.

Over the next 120 hours, we welcomed, sheltered, fed, and cared for evacuees.

Leading a shelter was quite a challenge, especially once we lost power.

Fortunately, the backup generators provided emergency lighting!

Once the storm passed, we transitioned into a long-term shelter, and the Red Cross arrived!

When we finally shut down shelter operations, we’d hosted more than 1,200 evacuees, 12 security officers, six Emergency Medical Services personnel, three custodians, six food service personnel, and countless volunteers.

As I reflected on the shelter experience, I realized Hurricane Irma had been a situation where I modeled my leadership philosophy.

What is my leadership philosophy?

To lead by example!

I first learned this lesson as a young military officer. My soldiers followed my lead. They looked to me for guidance and reassurance, especially in a crisis.

Your team will take their cue from you.

You set the tone as the leader.

Now, when you’re facing your first crisis as a leader, or another unexpected crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, what can you do to increase your chances of success?

The following are 5 leadership lessons I learned during a crisis; Hurricane Irma:

First, Over-communicate.

  • People need information
  • If you don’t provide information, your team will find information through different sources:
  1. Office gossip
  2. The Internet
  3. Their own thoughts
  • Be honest and transparent
  • If you don’t know, say so, but reassure them.

2. Manage expectations

  • Be clear, concise, and honest
  • Tell people what to expect
  • Acknowledge the difficulty

Napoleon said, “Leaders are dealers in hope.”

  • Be a dealer in hope, but don’t oversell

3. Create Win-Win Solutions

  • Try to find a way to create win-win solutions
  • Yes, there will be some things that are non-negotiable
  • Everything else is open to negotiation

4. Walk slowly and take time to encourage and thank people. Remember, you are a dealer in hope.

  • Encourage people
  • Reassure them
  • Thank them for their support, patience, and hard work

5. Take care of yourself and your team

  • You can’t give what you don’t have
  • Trust your team and delegate
  • Be clear about your expectations

Always remember you’re the leader, and everyone is watching you!

It’s not a matter of “if” you will face a crisis but “when.”

The question is, how will you respond?

During Hurricane Irma, I was responsible for the safety of everyone who came to the shelter.

They were all looking to me to reassure them and keep them safe.

I felt as if they were trusting me with their lives.

I am pleased to say our team rose to the occasion!

As the evacuees left, they thanked us for our care.

While Hurricane Irma left a path of destruction, she also taught me several valuable leadership lessons which have served my team and me well during the COVID-19 crisis.

Today, I’m in a different role, with a different team, in a different crisis.

Although the Coronavirus crisis was unpredicted, unexpected, and unwelcome, I have led my team through it day by day.

Because of the leadership lessons, I learned in my last crisis, I was better prepared, and apply those lessons every day…

I have found them to be very helpful to me, and I hope they will be beneficial for you.

Now, let’s review…

As Hurricane Ian approaches Florida, I may have the opportunity to use the 5 lessons learned from Hurricane Irma and made more robust through the pandemic, yet again, in another crisis…

Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”

So, if you believe the lessons I’ve shared will improve your leadership performance and apply them correctly, you will experience more success!

Remember the 5 lessons I’ve learned, and lead through your next crisis with confidence.


Want more expert educational leadership guidance? View the Moore Leadership Moment on YouTube.

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Dr. Kim Moore

About the author

I'm Kim, your Educational Leadership Guide. I equip educational leaders with research-based and experientially learned educational leadership principles and best practices to promote student success.