Science

Leadership in the Age of the Surreal


Over the past two weeks, Hurricane Dorian destroyed portions of the Bahamas and posed a major threat to the southeastern U.S., before eventually making landfall in North Carolina. Given that we are in peak hurricane season, this is not an unprecedented story. In today’s age[perhaps “today’s reality”?], however, the devastating hurricane became a backdrop to a political farce that, even in retrospect, seems unbelievable.

It started with the best of intentions. President Trump was rightfully concerned and engaged with a developing threat to the U.S.. As is his wont, he tweeted about the oncoming storm and stated that Alabama would be hit by Dorian “(much) harder than anticipated.” At the time of his tweet[add URL for archive of NOAA 34-knot maps including Sunday, Sep 1, 8:00AM? https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/archive/2019/DORIAN_graphics.php?product=wind_probs_34_F120 ], extreme southeastern Alabama had a 5 to 10 percent chance of winds approaching[instead of “winds approaching” how about “encountering wind speeds of about”?] 39 mph[34 knots-39 mph—the reason it’s not “50 mph” is that the 50-knot map (58 mph) on Sunday, Sept 1 at the time of tweet showed zero probability of those winds in Alabama https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/archive/2019/DORIAN_graphics.php?product=wind_probs_50_F120]—hardly Armageddon.

Everyone makes mistakes—on social media and elsewhere—and this would have been completely forgotten if there had been a simple acknowledgement that Alabama was not threatened. But no, the President repeatedly doubled down on the “Alabama” aspect of Dorian, even while the storm was wreaking havoc on the Bahamas and posing a serious threat to the Carolinas.

Last week the National Weather Service kept their head down and out of the political theater and did their job—provide the best forecast and warnings of hazardous weather that today’s science can muster. Their warnings were remarkably accurate and focused attention in areas that were threatened. Just as important, they also informed those who were not in Dorian’s path they were spared. This included a tweet from the Birmingham, Alabama office of the Weather Service that there in fact was no threat from Dorian to Alabama.

This would have been the end of the story for the Weather Service and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), except that an unidentified “NOAA Spokesperson” later put out a press statement that said the president[lower-case style per ChicagoMOS 17th Edition 8:19] was correct[fact note: NOAA statement didn’t say president was “correct” –they said that at the time “President Trump … demonstrated … tropical-storm-force winds from Hurricane Dorian could impact Alabama” (they didn’t agree with any of the other stupidities that Trump came out with later that day)—which accords with NOAA 34-kt plot]about the threat to Alabama—and the local NWS office was wrong[fact note: NOAA statement from September 6 specifically said that NWS Birmingham “spoke in absolute terms”–which they did, but which was not correct given the 5-10% chance of 34kt winds]. Wow.

I will leave it to others to dissect the politics of the situation, and why the President made this a cause celebre, and instead talk about the leadership lessons NOAA has provided us since Friday.

  • Although we all get asked or told to do things by our boss we might not approve of, know your “red lines” of what you will and will not do to make your boss happy. Throwing your workforce under the bus to support your boss’s false allegation would, I hope, be seen as way beyond that proverbial line. Whether the direction came from NOAA or directly from the White House really doesn’t matter. You need to ask yourself: Do you stand for truth and for the people working for you? Or are you going to please your boss no matter the circumstances?
  • It’s not clear who put out the Friday press statement and who within NOAA cleared it. If you are leading an organization, in an acting capacity or permanently, you are responsible and accountable for the actions of your organization. Named or unnamed, the statement is an official NOAA position—and the NOAA Administrator by definition owns it. If that was in fact not the NOAA position, the statement should have been retracted immediately, with an apology to the workforce, and the person who released it should have been disciplined appropriately. Speaking of discipline …
  • One of the most basic rules of leadership is to praise in public and reprimand in private. Even if the Birmingham Weather Service office had done something wrong or contrary to policy, the way to fix it is not with a press statement that is guaranteed to gain national attention. Regardless of the merits, it’s simply extremely poor leadership to publicly excoriate a component of NOAA three echelons below headquarters.
  • As leaders, we are stewards of the crown jewels of that organization. For NOAA and the NWS, the crown jewels are their workforce, and the credibility they bring every day to advising and warning the American public about weather-related threats. Before issuing a statement publicly rebuking a hurricane-related statement put out by the National Weather Service, leaders should think carefully how this might impact the agency’s credibility with the public going forward. It’s too soon to tell, but it is hard to see how this can possibly help. If emergency officials or the public start to think weather warnings are politically influenced, it will undo countless years of hard work building credibility into the weather enterprise.
  • Finally, this is a sad example of how working for a toxic leader in a toxic administration greatly increases the risk of good and honorable people leaving with their reputation in tatters and becoming yet another piece of this administration’s flotsam.  Before you take a leadership job, understand your boss’s culture and values. If they are significantly at variance with yours, stand by for heavy rolls.

Leadership, even in a science-based organization, is a people job. Computers and numerical models come and go, but people are what make NOAA and the National Weather Service work. From personal experience, I can tell you there is no more dedicated set of people in our federal government working to keep the American public safe than the professionals at the Weather Service. They deserve political leadership that is supportive and will stand up for them—even when that puts their own job in jeopardy.

America deserves no less.




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