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Lessons from Chernobyl: The Fallout of Poor Leadership

My wife and I watched the five-part HBO miniseries Chernobyl earlier this year, and there’s a reason the docudrama earned 19 Emmy nominations. It’s a powerful, well-told story about one of the darkest times in modern history – the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, Soviet Union. Dark not just because of the tragic long-term impact the incident had on human lives and the environment, but also because of what it revealed about human nature and the pitfalls of leadership.

On April 26, 1986, a combination of human errors, design flaws in the Chernobyl reactor, and the intentional disabling of several safety systems caused a massive explosion. An uncontrollable chain reaction launched radioactive material across Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. At least 31 people died within the first three months from exposure and hundreds of others suffered from acute radiation sickness. Even today, more than 30 years later, an area of roughly 1,000 square miles remains part of an “Exclusion Zone” where public access is restricted because of radioactive contamination.

There are lessons for all leaders when we read about or watch stories of heroic difference makers, but there also are lessons in the warnings we can see in those leaders who were tested by history and flat-out failed. The Chernobyl miniseries provides us with both.

One of the things that struck me the deepest while watching was how many leaders gave in to personal fears and insecurities even when the stakes were at their highest. In this case, a lack of transparency among Soviet leaders with each other and with the outside world resulted in massive amounts of denial, blame-shifting, and coverups that literally cost people their lives and threatened or damaged the lives of countless others.

The victims included Valery Legasov, a Soviet nuclear physicist who was part of the response team. Legasov (played by Jared Harris in the HBO series) was outspoken about the immediate dangers of the accident and to the point about the causes, which didn’t win him friends among the Russian government officials who hoped to downplay the impact of the disaster or avoid responsibility for it. In 1988, two days after the second anniversary of the disaster and a day before he was to release the results of his investigation into its causes, Legasov hanged himself.

In addition, the culture in and around Chernobyl as well as in and around the government lacked transparency and trust. That led to cost-cutting on the nuclear reactor that put money ahead of safety. It led to ineffective training and management that grew lax when it came to safety protocols and procedures. And it led to pressures to comply with false narratives that resulted in poor decision-making.

For those who tried to clean up the mess the right way – people like Legasov, local firefighters, and several other scientists – the toxicity caused by the accident was intensified by the toxicity of the culture. Some died or became sick because they weren’t adequately protected from the dangers. Others, as seemed to be the case with Legasov, were drained of life by the fight to present a clear, truthful picture of what happened and why.

Most leaders don’t oversee operations like those at a nuclear power plant, but don’t think that any of us are immune to the trappings that ensnared many of the players in the Chernobyl saga. All leaders face the same temptations to cut corners when it comes to money and time, to put profits ahead of people, to respond to problems with pride instead of humility, and to build walls that shut off communication rather than highways that promote it. And all leaders face consequences from the types of cultures they help create. Those consequences might not prove fatal, at least not on the scale of Chernobyl, but they are no less real.

When I think about what leaders can do to guard against those temptations and those negative consequences, the first word that pops to mind is preparation – personal preparation and cultural preparation.

Jack Evans, the former chairman and CEO of the Cullum Companies and a popular mayor of Dallas in the early 1980s, often said, “You have what you tolerate.”[1] It was his way of pointing out that the results leaders see, from themselves and from their employees, are consequences of how they’ve prepared themselves and that culture to respond.

What you allow is what you get, and it’s hard, if not impossible, to turn that ship a different direction in a storm. Andy Stanley, in Next Generation Leader, put it this way: “There is no cramming for a test of character. It always comes as a pop quiz. You’re either ready or you’re not.” If you aren’t preparing your leadership core now, you won’t be ready when the pressure is on. If you aren’t creating a culture of trust and transparency now, people won’t act with trust and transparency when things get tough. You can expect nothing short of a meltdown, and it won’t be pretty.

[1] The Daniel Code: Living Out Truth in a Culture that Is Losing Its Way by O.S. Hawkins (2016)

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