News in Michigan over the past few weeks has featured water in the city of Flint. For those new to the story, first the water had an odor, then was discolored, and now there is evidence of lead. It’s a public health crisis; the blood-lead levels of children have doubled in some areas.
I’ve followed this story as a father, horrified to know that some parents are facing the reality their children have lead posioning.
I’ve followed this story as a citizen, angered by the failure of our state to address these concerns and provide proper city services (in America, you should have clean water coming from your faucet, no matter what your zip code).
I’ve also followed this story as a student of leadership.
In 2014, leaders of the city of Flint decided to move from the public water system they had used in favor of pumping water to residents from the Flint River. This move was part of a long term strategy to find a lower cost solution to providing water to residents of the finanically troubled city. Leaders failed to anticipate the pipes they would use to get the water from the river to the facuet were not up to the task. The water was corrosive and picked up lead from the pipes, endangering people.
The water crisis in Flint is a reminder of the high stakes decisions leaders make, in the short and long term. Millions of dollars will be spent in the effort to overcome the medical and infrastructure problems that will result from the care for those impacted and the repair of the public water system.
I have no data to support my position, but I believe that somewhere, there was a public service worker who anticipated this problem. The failure of leaders to hear from these people who knew far more about the water system caused them to make a poor decision. Did they fail to listen, did they fail to ask? Did they create an environment where staff members felt comfortable coming to leaders? Support is a two way street, as is comunication. As you head back next week to wherever it is you lead, ask yourself, have I made myself accessible to everyone? Do I hear everything? The good and the bad?
Poor communication contributed to a poor decision in Flint and a public health crisis followed. As leaders, we must recognize the potential consequences of our decisions, and must maintain communication to have all the facts when we make a decision. Get the right people in the room, and be correct at the end of the meeting.