Leadership Lessons from the Eye of the Storm

September 13, 2017 | 7801 Views

Leadership Lessons from the Eye of the Storm

Kathleen Wood

Founder & CEO | Kathleen Wood Partners & Suzy's Swirl

On August 29, 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana with what was called one of our nation’s greatest natural disasters. At the time I was President and COO of Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, where one of my primary responsibilities was risk/crisis management. Before, during, and after Katrina, the Raising Cane’s team did an amazing job of managing unprecedented circumstances while building a platform for explosive growth. Within two years following Katrina, Raising Cane’s Chicken grew from 24 locations to 68, improved $25 million in revenue to $100 million, and expanded its national footprint. 

In 2006, I was asked by CHART to present the leadership lessons from Hurricane Katrina. My presentation was entitled, “Lessons from the Eye of the Storm.” Given the events of the past few weeks, CHART once again asked if I could share those lessons with our amazing and giving CHART community. The leadership lessons from Katrina are still leadership lessons I use and teach in my consulting practice with teams today. 

We all know that crises can bring out both the best and worst in humanity. As leaders, our responsibility, no matter our personal circumstances, is to lead people with confidence, courage, and consistency. In a crisis our greatest asset is our leadership!

The following are what I call the “High Cs of Crisis Leadership:”


This is the best response to chaos: the calmer the leader, the calmer the team. Staying calm allows you, the leader, to stay focused. Think about it, no one ever follows a leader who is freaking out!

Containing the Crazy

Restrict conversations to facts. During Katrina, we would get reports of terrible things happening all around us. We started to realize that many of them were rumor and hearsay, and that we were using precious time and energy on things that may not even be happening. We therefore made the declaration that unless the information was fact-based, and not just rumor, we would not make time to talk about it.

Consistency in Communication

This is the secret in the sauce. In a crisis, leaders can so get focused on managing through the crisis that they miss opportunity to keep the team connected. The key is consistent and frequent communication. Here are a few tips:

1)      Communicating the plan for preparation and recovery keeps the team focused and moving forward. 

2)      Providing updates on the plan and the progress that is being made instills confidence. 

3)      Sharing successes inspires the team to know that the countless hours of pressure are producing results.

4)      Creating an outlet for key leaders and team members to give feedback on our plans, progress, and results is essential to finding the most effective way forward. 


Great leaders in times of great crisis lead with great confidence. The team is a reflection of the leader. Even if it feels like it may never end, a crisis is just a moment in time:

1)      Our priority going into Katrina was the safety of our crew. Every decision we made went through that filter. The result was that our team had absolute confidence in our leadership and decision making. We were 100% transparent – 100% of the time.

2)      We were also focused on supporting our crew and communities as we re-opened our restaurants post Katrina. We shared our plan for re-opening with our team so they were part of the solution.

3)      Our entire company was unwavering in confidence even when surrounded by uncertainty.


As a leader in a crisis, it is easy to lose sight of the cumulating effect of the crisis on your team and those helping you manage the crisis. To avoid this:

1)      Check in with key team members with specifics on how they are doing. Are they sleeping, eating, connecting, with loved ones? How are they doing personally?

2)      Remember that everyone is impacted in crisis, even when they tell you they are fine. Ask specific questions. What does your team need, especially if they have been impacted by the crisis? Sometimes, it’s not about asking, it’s about telling. During Katrina, we could see the toll the crisis had on our team. So, we made them take time off. We made them go home and tried to provide support services to them too.

3)      Remember also the impact after the crisis has cleared. Set up regular crew meetings to check in with your team to see how they are doing. In Katrina, we wanted to know where they were living, what their loss was, and what they needed. One of the most emotional moments was when we had an entire crew who could not afford Christmas gifts for their family. Our crew loaded an SUV with donations and drove to the restaurant so they could select gifts. This was almost four months after Katrina.


Celebrate even small milestones to keep the team moving toward the bigger wins. Celebrate them as you achieve them. Milestones we celebrated included:

1)      Having the Baton Rouge restaurants ready for the first LSU home football game.

2)       Being the first new construction in New Orleans with the opening of a restaurant in Metairie.

3)       Getting our home office crew off a steady diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

4)      Having all crew members with roofs over their heads before Christmas.

5)      Insuring every manager had a turkey for Thanksgiving.

6)      Celebrating birthdays, holidays and anniversaries.

7)      Remembering to laugh especially after very long days.

The greatest leadership lesson of all is that the profound devastation of Mother Nature will never be equal to the profound strength of human nature. The journey of crisis is about progress, not perfection. As leaders we all have the amazing gift to be the bridge between fear and faith. This is the gift we can give – leadership! Let us go forth with calmness, confidence, communication, compassion, and celebration to lead our teams from surviving to thriving! 

My thoughts and prayers go out to the entire CHART community of leaders. Your gifts of love, spirit, and dedication will be invaluable on the road to recovery – thank you!  

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Comments (1)

  1. Wendi Scarborough:
    Sep 15, 2017 at 10:27 AM

    Thank you Kathleen! I was in the room at that CHART Conference when you first shared your story with us and it has stayed with me ever since. I especially remembered it these past couple of weeks with family, friends and colleagues in the path of Harvey and also Irma. I thought how wonderful it is to see so many examples of the "High C's" as you have named them coming out from these disasters. Leaders, first responders, businesses like restaurants and even private citizens all doing what they can and giving selflessly to those in need. I think the Lessons you gave back in Katrina must have sunk in because I see them paying off today.