Amtrak’s Joe Boardman: Out in front when tragedy hits – a lesson in leadership for all CEOs

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on May 19, 2015

The derailment of Amtrak Train 188 on May 12 in Philadelphia was a major tragedy, resulting in eight fatalities and over 200 injuries. The train was traveling at 106 mph, more than double the speed limit for the section of track going into a curve. The investigation continues as to why the train was traveling at such a high rate of speed.

I was struck by the way Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman was out front and center, the public face of Amtrak. In the official online blog of Amtrak, he wrote, “With truly heavy hearts, we mourn those who died. Their loss leaves holes in the lives of their families and communities. On behalf of the entire Amtrak family, I offer our sincere sympathies and prayers for them and their loved ones. Amtrak takes full responsibility and deeply apologizes for our role in this tragic event.”

Boardman went beyond this obligatory public statement. He has been on the scene in Philadelphia and has made himself available for interviews by the news media. He was one of the speakers at a memorial service held on May 18 attended by the first responders and government officials at the site of the derailment. In a moving speech, Boardman expressed his regret, and extended his condolences to the families of those whose lives were lost. Based on the tone and the emotional way in which he made his remarks, everyone knew he meant it.

In an interview with CNN, he was asked, “[When you] heard the news [that the train was traveling at] 106 miles per hour in a 50 mile per hour zone, what was your initial feeling?” Boardman stated, “We knew … that was too fast.” He was asked, “What do you say to people who say if [Positive Train Control] was installed, it could have prevented this fatal accident?” Boardman responded, “Had it been installed, it would have prevented this accident.” According to Boardman, PTC would be installed and operational by year-end. Too late to have prevented this tragedy.

Some CEOs choose to remain in the shadows, relying on their public relations people to handle an event of this magnitude. Boardman demonstrated courage for choosing to be out in front. This is a responsibility that cannot be delegated. Boardman showed he cared by being open and transparent. People will question for a long time why Amtrak had not yet installed Positive Train Control on this section of track. What they won’t question is Boardman’s decision to be the public face of Amtrak.

Will Boardman’s actions have an impact on the ultimate financial payout to the injured and the families of those killed? I will let those who have more expertise than me answer that question.

What lessons can the leaders of all organizations learn from Boardman? When a tragedy occurs due to your company’s action or inaction, its reputation will be damaged. You can help it recover by being the public and human face of your company, take responsibility, show genuine sympathy for the victims and vow to take steps to ensure that a similar incident doesn’t happen again.

Stan Silverman is a writer, speaker and advisor on effective leadership. He is the Leadership Catalyst at Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth. Silverman is vice chairman of the board of Drexel University, a director of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and former president and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. Website: www.SilvermanLeadership.com

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