On March 11, 2011, Japan was hit by a massive earthquake, one of the 5 most powerful earthquakes in history. Over 15,000 people died, nearly 3,000 are still recorded as missing, and the economic costs of the earthquake and resulting tsunami have made this the most expensive natural disaster in history.

One of the most frightening events in the aftermath of the earthquake was the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. The plant, which helped generate a substantial amount of electricity for Tokyo (the world’s largest city) lost power after being hit by the tsunami, and the nuclear reactors shut down and started to melt down.

The nuclear disaster almost became catastrophic. Recently released reports have indicated that at the worst depths of the crisis, Japanese authorities even considered evacuating the entire metropolitan area of Tokyo (35 million people), for fear that the nuclear meltdown would spread and create widespread radioactive contamination.

While no small business will ever experience such a massive disaster as the Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011, this catastrophic experience is worth reflecting on as we look for ways to prepare our own businesses for the worst – even as we hope for the best.

What are some ideas and perspectives that your business can take away from the Japan tragedy of 2011?

  • Be prepared for disasters. Disasters cannot always be avoided, but they can be managed. The uncomfortable truth is that as bad as the Japanese earthquake was, it could have easily been worse if Japan didn’t have good building codes and technology to mitigate the worst effects of earthquakes. Japan is not the only country to be affected by earthquakes. Much of the West Coast of the United States could also be affected by a similar natural disaster – massive offshore earthquake followed by a tsunami. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when.” Is your business prepared for disaster? What happens to your business if there is a natural disaster in your area? Do you have your business critical data and online systems backed up? Do you have an easy way to stay in contact with customers and suppliers? Do you have an emergency fund to pay employee salaries (and pay your own salary) in case you have to shut down operations for a week, or a month, or more?
  • Crisis leadership demands transparency and forthright action. One frustration voiced by many people in Japan after the earthquake was that they felt the government authorities (and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owned the stricken nuclear plant) were not being open enough about the extent of the disaster. Information was hard to find. There was a lack of clarity as to who was in charge of managing the disaster at the nuclear plant. In defense of Japan’s government, the sheer scale of the disaster was unprecedented. But every leader can learn from the example of Japan’s response to the crisis. When a crisis hits, you need to be ready to delegate, ready to implement the crisis response plans, and ready to communicate – clearly, openly and regularly – with all the key audiences involved.
  • Rely on your team. Some of the most poignant and heartwarming images of the aftermath of the quake were the many Japanese people who helped each other to recover from the disaster. People helped each other find Red Cross shelters, helped evacuate elderly residents from nursing homes, and helped each other persevere through horrific times with grace and dignity. One of Japan’s greatest strengths as a country is the ability to endure difficulties and exhibit grace under pressure. I know because I used to live in Japan and I often heard people say to each other, “Ganbare!” which is Japanese for “Do your best!” or “Hang in there!” Even during one of the worst disasters in Japan’s history, most people still could be counted on to do the right thing and help each other get through it. As a leader in your business, remember to keep your employees focused on the human elements of business – building relationships, helping customers, and making life a little easier for each other along the way.

For more information on the 2011 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, watch this special from PBS Nova, “Japan’s Killer Quake.”