I found myself being driven through the streets of London at 5.00 am this morning. Pre-dawn London is magnificent. The city looks splendid: bright and sharp against a clear autumn night sky. And the lack of traffic means that the collection of medieval villages that now constitute this great international city fall into geographical context. Rather than sitting snarled in traffic losing sense of how London knits together, my taxi sped from Bermondsey to Southwark to Lambeth to Westminster to Knightsbridge to Kensington and beyond; the ancient place names – each resonant with London’s long and tangled history – that have now been absorbed into one vast urban metropolis.
My journey took me to BBC Television Centre in west London where I was wheeled out as the latest talking head analysing the impact of Hurricane Sandy as it battered the east coast of the United States. It actually feels a little uncomfortable sitting in the cosy studio of the BBC Today Programme talking about a human disaster unfolding thousands of miles away. How can you begin to articulate sensitively the key points about disaster management succinctly in just a few minutes when you are sandwiched tightly between job losses at a Swiss bank and management changes at Apple?
Emails overnight from friends in New York remind me what a tough, resilient place it is. Millions of people have come from every corner of the world to make this city home and they have demonstrated before how they can pick themselves up and get on with their lives.
After the trauma of 9/11 and the shock of Hurricane Katrina, the United States has applied considerable resources in preparing for a wide range of potential disasters. But it is still hard to plan for every eventuality. Successful crisis management, my colleagues at AnnaPurna Consulting always remind me, is part good planning and part intelligent improvisation.
Both require leadership that is firm yet flexible, well organised but not doctrinaire and able to corral all the resources at their disposal – federal and local, public and private – to do what it takes to keep people safe. It is a useful reminder that this is the real stuff of politics not the banal theatrics of presidential debates. Political leadership – as well as corporate leadership – is increasingly about an ability to manage an almost constant barrage of unexpected dramas and crises.
It is hard to imagine us electing anyone into high office on these criteria alone: “I’ll work hard, think things through, take good advice and when things get tough, I won’t let you down”. But when we look around the world and see the number of senior leaders who really should not be allowed to use scissors unsupervised, perhaps we should.
An hour later and I emerge from BBC headquarters to retrace my steps across London. Night has turned to day and the swift journey through a sparkling city of a few hours ago has been replaced by a grim crawl through traffic clogged streets, time again to reflect on what it must be like in the eye of the storm across the Atlantic.