Blog, Crisis Management

Crisis Management 101: A Wakeup Call for Law Enforcement Organizations Everywhere

Originally posted August 19, 2014 on the Huffington Post

To say the least, the shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri raises highly disturbing and troubling issues for law enforcement agencies everywhere. It is imperative that they learn and put into practice immediately, the most critical lessons from Crisis Management. Let us list briefly a few of the many lessons:

1. A crisis is the worst of all possible times to conduct a review of department policies and actions. Indeed, crises generally drag departments through the mud relentlessly with regard to their current and past behavior. The result is that calm, contemplative institutional change gets lost in the din of the crisis. Everything is exposed and criticized for all to see. Long-range damage is done. Affected individuals and communities not only stage legitimate protests, and sadly, violence often erupts as anger towards the police boils over. For this reason, before major crises occur, police agencies need to conduct regular, ongoing Crisis Audits of their strengths and vulnerabilities. They need to imagine the unimaginable. They need to surface and address potential crises long before they occur. They need to bring in outsiders, such as members of police community advisory boards who can perform hard-hitting, no-holds barred assessments of their susceptibilities with regard to potential crises of all kinds. Outsiders also need to be involved in reviewing the lessons that should have been learned and implemented from past crises. It is not that outsiders are perfectly “objective and unbiased,” for no one possess these desirable attributes. Rather, outsiders are indispensable in surfacing and challenging taken-for-granted assumptions and practices that insiders are often reluctant unwilling to face.

2. Again, with the help of outsiders, realistic assessments of the ethnic and racial compositions of law enforcement agencies need to be performed. Members from surrounding communities need to be involved in such assessments and with all aspects of Crisis Management. Outsiders and members need to be involved in plans for correcting ethnic and racial imbalances. This takes transparency and community involvement to new levels.

3. Realistic simulations of worst-case scenarios such as the shootings of unarmed teenagers need to be performed and assessed on a regular basis. The simulations need to cover what can occur before, during, and after such events. Good crisis simulations also cover what happens when any single crisis sets off a chain reaction of other crises. That is, crises virtually never occur in isolation. To be prepared for one and only one type of crisis is not to be prepared at all. Further, no simulation is worthwhile if it doesn’t take a hard look at the assumptions governing when it is allowable to use the various legal and policy approved levels of force in responding to any situation.

4. Finally, Crisis Management needs to be an integral of the “new skill set” of modern policing. Crisis Management needs to be woven seamlessly into day-to-day operations. This means that everyone needs to be trained and evaluated with respect to the best practices of Crisis Management.

The worst form of Crisis Management is reactive, that is, responding without any prior preparation or training. Law enforcement organizations including city, county, state and federal, must learn to practice proactive Crisis Management or things will only get worse. And, if proactive Crisis Management means anything, it’s that plans are not enough. One needs the capabilities to handle crises.

But most of all, good Crisis Management is not just responding well to crises once they’ve occurred. Good Crisis Management is doing everything humanly possible to prevent major crises from happening in the first place. Years of sincere, community based policing built linkages and partnerships can build prevention, proper response and effective containment of even the most difficult crises.

Blog, Crisis Management

We Have as Much to Fear From Ourselves as We Do From Terrorists

Originally posted on The Huffington Post – January 24, 2014

“We have built a system, based on technology, that no human seems to understand…Convene the smartest minds in the world, off the record, and you don’t see a lot of confidence that anybody is on top of this.” — Donald Langevoort

As is well known by now, on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, a chemical used in processing coal leaked from a plant run by Freedom Industries into the nearby Elk River, thereby contaminating drinking water for some 6,000 to 10,000 people in Charlestown, W.V. In addition, the water of hundreds of thousands of people in towns located downstream was tainted as well. The contamination happened because the water filtration plant for the town was located directly downstream from the chemical plant.

Since the tanks in which the chemicals were stored didn’t fall under state or federal inspection programs and weren’t considered hazardous, environmental permits to operate the plant were not required. Needless to say, these decisions are now up for review, especially since it was found that the tanks had serious cracks that had not been repaired.

As of this writing, Freedom Industries has filed for bankruptcy in order to limit its liability for the spill.

If a terrorist had deliberately set out to disrupt a town and raise heightened fears about the safety of drinking water and other essentials for life, then he or she couldn’t have picked a better place and way to do it. As much as acts of terrorism naturally raise our fears, we have as much, if not more, to fear from the technologies that permeate our lives and on which we depend.

The sad fact of the matter is that not a day goes by without the occurrence, or near-occurrence, of a major crisis, disaster, tragedy, etc. If this weren’t bad enough, more than one crisis a day is no longer uncommon. Indeed, it has become the norm.

We have created the kind of society that increasingly is prone to all kinds of crises: corporate malfeasance, crime, “death of the middle class,” dysfunctional politics, economic/financial, housing bubbles, environmental, chronic unemployment and underemployment, mass shootings, natural disasters, poor educational system, severe income inequality leading to a new “Gilded Age,” terrorism, etc. And, this is only a partial list!

Worst of all, crises are no longer separate or distinct. Instead, they are highly interconnected. Individual crises interact in strange and unpredictable ways such that they not only reinforce, but actually contribute to one another. Any crisis is capable of setting off an uncontrolled chain reaction of other crises. This is why it is not enough to be prepared for one and only one type of crisis. One must be prepared for a system of crises that can and will strike simultaneously.

It is as though as a civilization we are no longer content to leave crises to chance, but have deliberately gone out of our way to ensure that they occur 24/7/365. There is no doubt whatsoever that they are bigger, costlier, and deadlier. And, the time between them has shrunk precipitously.

The good news is that even if it is humanely impossible to prevent all crises, there is much that has been learned from the field of crisis management that can help lower the chances and the ill effects of the next crises.

The social, emotional, and financial costs of crises are enormous. Their impacts not only reach beyond traditional geographic borders (e.g., Chernobyl, Fukushima), but also extend far into the future. For example, the disposal or storing of toxic nuclear waste affects generations to come. In short, crises don’t respect the rules of ordinary space and time. In fact, they don’t respect any of the “normal rules” of civilization. In a word, crises now have the potential to affect everyone everywhere.

If we are to stand any hope of being better prepared for the worst that now happens almost on a daily basis, then more than crisis experts alone need to have a modicum of understanding of crisis management. The general public needs to push public officials and corporate executives for better preparation before the next calamities occur. We cannot leave thinking about and preparations for crises to experts, corporate executives, and government officials alone. An informed citizenry is an absolute necessity.

Blog, Crisis Management, Media + Politics, Psychology

Treating Gun Violence as an Addiction and a Cult

Originally published on Nation of Change, January 30, 2013

There is something seriously wrong with a society that even has to debate whether it needs to control the most lethal types of weapons in the hands of civilians.

I want to propose what is to my knowledge a novel way of thinking about and thereby treating gun violence. If as I believe that an obsessive need for guns is akin to an addiction and therefore cannot be dealt with by means of conventional arguments (after all, many alcoholics know “rationally” that alcohol is killing them but they are still unable to resist its near total control over their lives), then I believe that we need to stop beating around the bush and treat the obsessive need for guns as a major form of addiction. Accordingly, I have taken the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and reworded them to apply to our society’s deadly obsession with guns. In proposing this, I have no illusion whatsoever that in and of itself this will help us to better manage what I believe is our society’s completely out-of-control proliferation of guns. What I do hope is this it will encourage us to explore new ways of thinking about guns.

I strongly urge the reader to note that in the second paragraph above I have deliberately stressed the word “obsessive” for I don’t believe that everyone who possesses guns or has the desire to have them is therefore suffering from a major form of addiction. Quite to the contrary. I also don’t believe that all guns ought to be banned. I believe that only those guns that are extremely lethal ought to be strictly controlled. That is, contrary to the NRA, some guns are more lethal than others. All guns are not equal. As a result, I believe that there is no place whatsoever for military-assault type weapons in the hands of civilians. Apparently, neither do many responsible and sensible gun owners.

Here then is my version of a twelve-step program for rabid gun owners.


1.      We admitted we were powerless over our fascination with and need for guns and as a result that our lives and society as a whole had become unmanageable. (Notice that this first step is a frank admission that one is no longer in denial of the fact that by themselves guns do not necessarily make oneself and one’s society automatically safer, that there are not dangerous side effects to having guns in one’s home, etc.)

2.      We came to believe that a Moral Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. That is, the lives and well being of children were more important than our desire to hunt, shoot, and collect/own firearms, especially high-power automatic weapons. As such, we came to realize that no rights were absolute. Thus, while we still believed in the Second Amendment, we came to realize that it did not sanction the possession of weapons of war.

3.      We made a conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of this Moral Power as we understood It.

4.      Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and how our unrestrained possession of firearms harmed the collective good of society.

5.      Admitted to a Higher Power however we conceived of Him/Her/It, to ourselves, and to others the exact nature of our uncontrolled obsession over guns.

6.      We are entirely ready to have our Higher Power remove all these defects of character. That is, we are ready to take action against our obsession with guns.

7. Humbly asked our Higher Power to remove our obsession.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed through our beliefs and actions and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our Higher Power, as we understood Him/Her/It, praying only for knowledge of His/Her/Its will for us and the power to carry it out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to gun owners, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. In particular, we saw the need to design and implement a new organization of Responsible Gun Owners for the Collective Good.

In short, the practitioners of this new Twelve Step Program for Gun Owners would be enacting a new form of a Precautionary Principle for Children. That is, if there was the slightest chance that a specific type of weapon posed an especially dangerous threat to the well being of children in particular, then they would willingly give that weapon (hobby, etc.) up for the greater good of society.

Religious and Cult-Like Aspects

If only the preceding were sufficient to change our deeply held attitudes towards the most dangerous types of guns. Sadly, there is almost a naïve, child-like quality to the preceding. It is not that Twelve Step Programs don’t work. They do. But in order to work, one not only has to “hit bottom,” but to believe that a “cure” is possible and to want to undertake it more than anything else.

Unfortunately, this is not possible for many for there is no denying that there is a deep, fundamentalist aspect to the makeup of many ardent gun owners. This is perhaps the strangest aspect to the whole gun issue for the founding fathers did not intend via The Bill of Rights to aid and abet any kind of “state religion.” And yet, the fervor in which many hold The Second Amendment is akin to an article of religious faith.

No one has said it better than Dennis Henigan, author of the incredible book, Lethal Logic, Exploding The Myths That Paralyze American Gun Policy (ISBN 978-1-59797-356-4):

“As one NRA leader put it some years ago, ‘You would get a far better understanding [of the extreme fervor with which many owners often have for guns] if you approached us as if you were approaching one of the great religions of the world.’ This is not a frivolous comparison. There is an unquestionably religious fervor about the beliefs of many pro-gun partisans. It is grounded in various articles of religious faith that form the catechism of the NRA: that law-abiding citizens are under constant risk of attack by predatory criminals, that the safety of every person and family depends upon the ability of individuals to defend themselves with firearms, that the government cannot be trusted to provide security to individuals and families, that democratic institutions cannot be counted on to protect our liberties as Americans, that those institutions are at constant risk of subversion by tyrannical elements, and that tyranny is kept at bay only by the potential for insurrection by an armed populace intent on maintaining liberty. In the NRA’s world, these are eternal truths. They are not themselves proper subjects for empirical testing or debate, but rather are a priori verities according to which the world is interpreted and understood.

“To the true believers, the gun is an object of religious devotion…The hallowed place of the gun is reflected in the holy text of the gun rights movement, the Second Amendment to the Constitution…”

If this is indeed the case, then all the rational arguments in the world don’t stand any chance of making headway with those who regard guns and the Second Amendment as “holy objects.” It is like talking to the members of a cult. The only thing one can do is to “deprogram them.” But even assuming that we could, there aren’t enough therapists and trained facilitators to deprogram those who don’t see any need for it. Besides, who “deprograms a whole society?”

In the end, all one can do is rely on those who are not members of the cult to come together and to organize themselves politically to take action against collective madness; and of course, to hope that there are enough who are not members to overcome those who are.

The more that the NRA speaks out against sensible gun laws and actions, the more it empowers those who have more responsible views. In sum, whether it knows it or not—and it clearly doesn’t—the NRA is its own worst enemy.

Originally published on Nation of Change, January 30, 2013

Blog, Crisis Management, Media + Politics

Deadly Assumptions: When the World Is Shattered

Originally published on The Huffington Post, December 18, 2012

For over 30 years, I have consulted with regard to and studied virtually every type of crisis imaginable (man-made and so-called natural disasters, criminal, environmental, ethical, financial, PR, shootings, terrorism, etc.). As a result, I am the least of all persons to dispute or downplay the horrible carnage and trauma that far too many crises leave in their wake. To be sure, this is their most immediate, visible, and onerous consequence. Nevertheless, one of the least acknowledged and least studied aspects of all crises is the extreme havoc they wreck with the innumerable taken-for-granted assumptions we make about our selves, others, and the world in general. In a word, major crises like the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut shatter our world in multiple ways.

From the standpoint of assumptions, no matter how unalike they are on their surface, crises are eerily alike. For instance, in studying the aftermath of the 1995 bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City, it suddenly became clear to me that three major, taken-for-granted, and largely unconscious assumptions were completely torn to smithereens by the horrific tragedy. That is, not only was the building and even worse the bodies of innocent people blown up, but at a deep level, the assumptions that we use to guide our lives were blown up as well:

1. Terrorism does not happen in the heartland of America; terrorism only happens in Europe and the Middle East.

2. An American would not commit an egregious act of terrorism against his or her fellow citizens.

3. And innocent men, women, and worst of all, young children would not be killed to make some unfathomable point or further some senseless cause.

Sadly, the preceding types of assumptions are perfectly general, and therefore, with little change, apply to Sandy Hook as well:

1. Our town and schools are exempt, protected, etc. from horrendous catastrophes.

2. One of our own — a member of our community — will not go on a rampage.

3. And worst of all, the most vulnerable members of society will not be killed right before our eyes in the worst possible ways.

In short, the basic assumptions that all of us depend on and use daily to make sense of the world are in far too many cases completely shattered (“blown apart” is not an overstatement). In the most general terms, these are: the world is stable, orderly, and predictable; we can trust our fellow citizens; we are safe in our homes, schools, and in public generally; etc.

Of course a completely safe, orderly, and predictable world is not given to humans. But this is beside the point. The fact that we can’t prevent all crises is no excuse for not doing all that we can to lower both their chances of occurrence and their disastrous consequences.

All of this is of course a prelude to our culture’s completely out of control addiction to guns and violence. With regard to guns in particular, I believe that the time for talking to gun nuts (not “responsible gun owners”) is over. By definition, gun nuts will never be open to reasoned argument. The fact that the odds of killing a family member as well as the chances of suicide increase exponentially if one has a gun in one’s home is completely lost on gun nuts. All that matters is their self-centered reasons for owning guns. The lives of young children pale in comparison. As a result, I’m through trying to reason with them or counter their fear and paranoia, let alone respond to their narcissism.

If ever the time was ripe for political action, it is now. If this isn’t a tipping point, then God help us. Among many things, the time is now for responsible gun owners to found a new organization that can counter the NRA.

We have to do everything in our power to break the deadly grip of the most dangerous guns so that we don’t have to go through the repeated cycle of endless deaths and the crash of our most fundamental assumptions.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, December 18, 2012

Blog, Business, Crisis Management

Wall Street: An Unmitigated Culture of Risk

Originally published on The Huffington Post, May 16, 2012

Co-written by Murat Alpaslan

Earlier this year, we published Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes. It was an in-depth study of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. While it was written long before the latest JP Morgan Chase debacle, unfortunately, it anticipated it perfectly. Indeed, it predicted that unless there were momentous changes in the culture of Wall Street, we were in for more of the same.

We are dealing with a perfect storm of (1) complex financial instruments that are beyond the abilities of even the best so-called experts, let alone ordinary mortals, to understand adequately, and (2) an enabling culture of Wall Street that despite all disclaimers to the contrary has little interest and will in understanding and mitigating risk. In short, the financial temptations to engage in risky activities are too great, especially for those with a predisposition towards psychopathology. Apparently, Wall Street tends to attract and nurture psychopaths in greater numbers than are found in the general population.

The complexity of the financial instruments and the lack of proper regulation of the industry are certainly key factors in what caused the latest crisis. Still, it demonstrates once again that until the culture of Wall Street is reformed radically, unscrupulous agents will find ways around the best regulations.

When the Great Financial Crisis started to unfold, Mitroff was fortunate to have repeated conversations with a friend — call him Adam Smith (not his real name, and not necessarily his real gender; in fact, “Adam” is a composite of several people) — who works for a major bank. Adam has uncovered a set of primary assumptions and beliefs that are at the heart of the financial industry. The assumptions and beliefs that he has exposed result from hours of interviews and conversations that Adam has conducted with some of the top Wall Street analysts, managers, and executives. They are also the result of his analyzing countless books, reports, and articles. They derive as well from Adam’s many hours of working among and thus observing at first hand the behavior of the “natives.”

The following set of assumptions and beliefs that Adam observed not only tell us about the dominant culture of Wall Street but they also reveal its dark side as clearly and starkly as anything:

1. We are the Masters of the Universe; we can manipulate anything and anybody to our advantage; we can “game the numbers and the system to serve our needs.”
2. We’re smarter than anyone else; unless you are as smart as us, you can’t possibly understand the complicated financial instruments we’ve invented.
3. We don’t need controls and regulations. We have been selected for our unique skills and talents. As a result, we know what’s best for us.
4. We bet and play with others’ money. It’s a high-risk, high-reward environment. It’s not for everyone.
5. We are entitled to the huge amounts of money we make because of the value of the huge deals that we bring to market.
6. We don’t fail — period! We’re too big and important to fail. Indeed, the world cannot allow us to fail because we are essential to the functioning of the world’s capital markets.
7. Since numbers are the only things that really matter, we can manage risk by reducing it to a mathematical equation.
8. You are only as good as your “last kill” — that is, “big deal.” If you are not producing, then you are not valued.
9. To succeed you have to make difficult decisions. There is no room for bleeding hearts. If, in order to get ahead, you have to fire your best friend, then don’t think twice about doing it.
10. We can’t control the markets. We just pay attention to today and to the transactions immediately in front of us that are within our control.
11. If you’re standing still, then you’re “moving backwards.”
12. We are a culture based on performance. We are constantly grading and weeding out the weak and underperforming.

All of the preceding assumptions and beliefs not only reflect the narrow-mindedness and insularity of Wall Street, but they express a deep sense of entitlement and narcissism, as well as an inability and/or unwillingness to self-regulate. In fact, the assumptions and beliefs constitute a self-sealing and perpetuating system. In many ways, they are nothing but primitive defense mechanisms. They certainly reveal the underlying psychopathology inherent in the system.
Obviously, not everyone in the industry subscribes fully to these beliefs, but according to Adam, the majority not only overlooked and tolerated them to a great degree, but sadly, they still do.

A Culture of Trust

A financial system is basically a trust-based system. No financial system can operate effectively without trust.

Even after the financial crisis, most of us still have to assume that our financial system is trustworthy. For instance, we still trust that “money” is a valid form of payment and assume that others do as well. We trust that the banks will be there tomorrow. We trust that our pension funds, insurance companies, and investment advisers have our best interests in heart. We trust policy makers. We trust the Fed chairman’s monetary policies. In short, trust is the central assumption in any financial system.

With this firmly in mind, let us offer a set of counter assumptions or beliefs that a trust-enhancing financial system would have. Indeed, given recent events, doing everything that we can to ensure such a system is of the highest priority.

1. We are the Moral Masters of the Universe; we never manipulate anything and anybody to our advantage.
2. We have been selected for our unique moral values. Although we can self-regulate, we also want controls and regulations.
3. We never bet with your money. We don’t take unnecessary risks with your money that we wouldn’t take with ours. We know what’s best for you and all of us.
4. We are not entitled to the amounts of money we make unless we bring do so responsibly.
5. We make mistakes! We know we are essential to the functioning of the world’s capital markets. That is why we will not get too big to fail.
6. Moral values matter. We manage risk but never reduce it to a mathematical equation.
7. We are only as moral as our last action. If we are not acting morally, then we ought not to be valued.
8. To succeed we have to make difficult decisions. But there is no room for machismo. We try to make the best decisions, and we never put aside our values and emotions.
9. We can’t control the markets. But we do our best to pay attention to the future.
10. We are a culture based on trust. We are constantly grading and weeding out the untrustworthy.

The main cause of the Great Financial Crisis was not merely financial. It was also cultural. The financial system needs to move from a culture of selfishness and narcissism to a culture of trust.

Obviously, given recent events, we have no illusions whatsoever that moving to a new culture is either easy or forthcoming. For this reason, we have to keep the pressure on.

Given Adam’s penetrating analysis, we can no longer pretend that we do not know the underlying cultural forces at work. We have indeed met the enemy, and “he is us!”

Originally published on The Huffington Post, May 16, 2012

Blog, Crisis Management, Media + Politics, Psychology

The Republicans’ Masterful and Insidious Prey on America’s Founding Fears and Stories: Part II

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 9, 2012

In a recent op-ed, “The Republicans’ Masterful and Insidious Prey on America’s Founding Fears,” I talked about the fact that in 1988, Rupert Wilkinson published a remarkable little book. Wilkinson identified four fears that not only have been present from the very founding of the Republic, but are so basic that they are virtually synonymous with it: 1. The Fear of Being Owned; 2. The Fear of Falling Away; 3. The Fear of Winding Down; and 4. The Fear of Falling Apart.

Very few people know that just a year earlier in 1987, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich also published a book that dealt in a different but complimentary way with the same themes. In fact, I regard it as one of his best books.

Reich described four primary myths or stories that historically have not only defined American character, but have from the very beginning of our existence as a nation shaped our major attitudes and policies towards key issues and problems.

Taken together, Reich and Wilkerson give a deep understanding of the largely unconscious forces that not only drive all Americans, but are especially powerful in motivating today’s Republicans and conservatives. Like all cultures, our unique history has “set us up” in how we approach critical issues no matter what the time period in our history or the particular problems we are facing. As Nietzsche famously said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Reich’s four stories are: 1. The Rot at the Top; 2. The Barbarians at the Gate; 3. The Triumphant Individual; and, 4., The Benevolent Society.

The Rot at the Top is all the European despots, evil Kings, and tyrants from whom we initially fled. Given that Freudian Oedipal fears are always present as a natural phase of human development, they are especially painful when they have a strong basis in historical fact and are thus easily magnified.

The Rot at the Top corresponds directly to Wilkerson’s Fear of Being Owned. Once again, it helps to explain why the outrage towards President Obama and “Obamacare” is so nasty and intense. As the head of government, a black president especially stokes fear, fury, and hatred of unimaginable force.

Of course, for liberals, the Rot is Big Business; for conservatives, it is The Government. Neither one has a monopoly when it come to basic fears.

The Barbarians at the Gate are all those “just on the outside” and forever plotting to “get in and steal all our hard earned and deserved riches.” No wonder why illegal immigrants are so feared and hated. They are just the latest representatives of the evil horde. But so are women to conservatives. This also helps to explain why all the evidence to the contrary will never be enough to dispel claims that Obama is a Muslim who was not born in the U.S. In short, “he’s not one of us!”

The Triumphant Individual is the classic, lone American Hero who all by himself — traditionally the American Hero is male — is sufficient to defeat all of America’s enemies. He is the strong, silent type who doesn’t need anyone. Of course this all too conveniently ignores the fact that it took groups of people together to cross the plains and settle the country. Individuals by themselves were much more likely to perish.

But more than this, The Triumphant Individual is the raw creative energy of America itself. As such, The Triumphant Individual is closely allied with Wilkerson’s fears of Winding Down and Falling Away from the original dream of America.

Finally, The Benevolent Society is America herself, the shining beacon of hope to all of humankind. It is an America that can do no wrong because it is the font of all that is right. This too is closely allied with Wilkerson’s fears of Winding Down and Falling Away from the original dream of America.

The point is that at a very fundamental level, there is a great consistency between different views that help to explain why we are the way we are. But they do more than this.

The thing that liberals need to understand — and I’m not sure that they really can because of the powerful Grip of The Enlightenment with its intense distrust of emotion has on their thinking — is that because Wilkerson’s fears and Reich’s basic stories resonate so strongly with conservatives, they are much more able to use them to their immense advantage. Until liberals are able to help forge new stories that define the America of the future, they will always be at a severe disadvantage in winning the hearts and souls of Americans.

Still, Republicans and conservatives may very well own America’s old stories, but as recent events demonstrate all too well, it’s not enough to guarantee that they won’t screw up and lose today’s hearts and minds. For instance, because of their gross insensitivity, they show no end to their ability to offend women and other key stakeholders.

Nonetheless, liberals shouldn’t take this for granted. We need to take the lead in telling better stories about ourselves.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 9, 2012

Blog, Crisis Management

What the Great Greek and Shakespearian Tragedies Have to Teach About Modern Crises

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 6, 2012

The senseless killing of Trayvon Martin is not only a monumental tragedy, but it has all the elements of the great epic Greek and Shakespearian tragedies. In fact, all crises do.

The prime lesson: Get thee to the Greek playwrights and Shakespeare if one would better understand crises!

First of all, individual character and institutional flaws are a prominent, if not the most important, element of all crises (think Rupert Murdoch, Goldman Sachs, etc.). They are certainly prime aspects of the Trayvon Martin tragedy: George Zimmerman’s use of the “f__ word,” the botched handling of the case from the beginning by the Sanford Police Department, and no less the state of Florida, which allowed Zimmerman to operate as a self-appointed vigilante under its surreal “Stand Your Ground Law.”

Second, all the basic elements of tragedy — spectacle (protest marches, staged rallies, etc.), music and rhetoric (the incessant 24 hours “news” cycle, half-truths, self-serving analysis) — are integral parts of virtually all crises.

Third, the major over arching component of tragedy — the plot with its turning points, or “reversals,” based on “discoveries and recognitions” which cause the action to turn in unexpected ways — is a prime feature as well. Look at the ongoing spate of discoveries in the crisis enveloping Rupert Murdock and his empire.

The word “empire” strikes a chord. It brings to mind the world’s most famous tragedy, Hamlet, which is not only the story of a prince, but of an entire nation. The critical turning point in Hamlet is a double discovery that occurs in the middle of the plot. It happens during “the play within the play” that Hamlet stages. Hamlet not only succeeds in “catching the conscience of the king,” but as a result, he now knows for sure that Claudius, the king (his uncle), killed his father. At the same time, Claudius discovers that Hamlet knows. The action “turns” via these discoveries because the pursuer, Hamlet, becomes the pursued, and the pursued, King, become the pursuer.

More often than not, great wars hinge on crucial turning points. For example, Hitler invades Russia and discovers that his Nazi juggernaut is not invincible, and Stalin discovers that not only can he defeat Hitler, but by doing so, he can annex large sections of Europe. This, of course, leads to the Cold War, a crisis that dominates the second half of the 20th century until the plot turns again and “seems” to result in a happy ending. In fact, it merely leads to the beginning of another complicated drama, and so on.

Nonetheless, every tragedy has a final ending. In Hamlet, the double discovery leads to an absolute conclusion, although in a circuitous route that gives Shakespeare the opportunity to further develop Hamlet’s character. For example, Hamlet is so inflated by his discovery that he fails to notice that since the king now knows that he knows, he had better get out of Dodge City as fast as he can. Instead, he is so pumped that he talks about “drinking hot blood.”

“Hot blood” talk is another prominent feature of all major crises. We’ve already seen it rear its ugly head in the case of Trayvon Martin by right-wing commentators and the charge that Trayvon Martin attacked, and thus provoked, George Zimmerman. Rhetoric and false testimony attempt to reverse Trayvon Martin from the role of victim to the dramatic persona of the villain.

In Hamlet and many other tragedies, inflation and hubris are major aspects of the character of the tragic hero. To put it mildly, they are prime aspects of the principal actors in today’s crises, e.g., Rupert Murdoch, Goldman Sachs. Often, the very things that promote inflation are the exact same traits that make a person admirable, powerful, and an outstanding leader. The audience of course sees all of the “mixed bag,” but the hero doesn’t. This, of course, is tragic irony.

In Greek tragedy, the chorus often functioned as the “people” (today’s TV audience) who in some way saw what was happening or going to happen. They embodied the fear, but were powerless to stop it. They played the role of a witness. They were the ones who literally sang about what they feared and knew. They were something like today’s crisis experts who try to warn leaders by telling them what they don’t want to hear. For instance, in the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was the civilian leaders who told the military leaders what they did not want to hear and thus avoided what would have been a total tragedy of epic proportions.

One of the many sources that fed into the theater of Shakespeare — that incredible period of dramatic/theatrical growth and accomplishment — were the Royal Entries into London. These happened when a new king was granted permission to enter the city and claim it as a seat of power. The formal procession of lords and statesmen that accompanied the King wound its way through the streets and often stopped at the crossroads where large structures were used as water stations. Little plays would be staged on top of the structures which were sometimes cautionary tales about what makes a good King and how bad Kings fall on bad times. The tragic plays that developed later were, of course, much more complex, but they retained, something of that message. In the great outdoor theaters of Shakespeare’s day, people from all walks of life were reminded of the rise and fall of the great and noble throughout history.

The Puritans, of course, didn’t go to the theater, and so when they seized power in 1642, they tore down all the theaters. In 1660, they were themselves torn down. They should have gone to the theater. Their supreme arrogance and hubris reminds one of the Tea Party, Santorum, Rush Limbaugh, the Catholic bishops and all the others that want some kind of theocracy.

What this should teach us is that crises cannot be avoided altogether. As that other great character of destiny, Macbeth, says we are all merely players who strut our stuff upon the stage and then are “heard no more.” The metaphor — “all the world’s a stage” — is a central meme Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare may in fact have made it into a central meme. We certainly believe that it’s a useful trope for Crisis Management. Perhaps it’s even a necessary prelude to management in general. It starts with the recognition that not even the hero has complete control over the events to come.

We are not gods, merely players. One can only hope that CEO’s would finally understand this and muster some of Macbeth’s humility. Unfortunately, Macbeth’s humility only emerges three short scenes before he looses his head. What a metaphor for our time!

The prime lesson for Crisis Management occurs in the final scene of Hamlet. By this time, all of the principal characters have been dispatched and the state of Denmark, having lost its leadership, is taken over by Fortinbras who has been at war over “a little patch” of Poland “that hath in it no profit but the name.” He just happens to be marching back home to Norway via Denmark and finds an empty throne surrounded by a dead king, queen, and prince. Thus, he claims the country for himself.

According to Horatio, Hamlet is positive about Fortinbras’ taking over. Earlier in the play, he sees Fortinbras in the distance going off to fight a worthless war, but because honor is at stake, he views Fortinbras as his personal model even though he declares that undertaking such a war reflects a hidden cancer (“imposthume”) of too much “wealth and peace.” (Shades of our Iraq folly.)

The cults of the hero, wealth, power, especially when coupled with ego inflation, hubris, ambition and rigidity of thought are unfortunately the perfect conditions for tragedies and crises.

If only we could finally learn from the Bard!

Originally published on The Huffington Post, April 6, 2012

Blog, Crisis Management

Colleges and Universities Are Ill-Prepared for Crises

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November 21, 2011

When my colleagues and I first started doing surveys of the crisis preparedness of major colleges and universities, we were shocked but not totally surprised to find that as poorly prepared large business organizations generally are for major crises, colleges and universities were even worse off. It is not that they are completely unprepared. Rather, the difference is between the crises that they are relatively well prepared for versus those that they barely prepared for, if at all.

The contrast sheds important light on why the horrific cases of child abuse happened at Penn State. It also points to why all colleges and universities need to wake up, take a serious look at their crisis preparations, and make significant improvements, if not overhaul them completely.
Major colleges and universities are relatively well prepared for explosions, fires, lawsuits, and crimes. They are also relatively well prepared for environmental mishaps.

But here’s the rub. They are not as well prepared for athletic crises such as improper recruiting activities, e.g., out of control drinking and sex parties; ethical breaches by administrators, faculty, and students; damage to their reputation such as that which Penn State is undergoing; sabotage and terrorism.

Sadly, it took a number of widely publicized shootings before colleges took preparations for them seriously.

Part of the difference is explained by the frequency with which certain crises occur. Thus, explosions, fires, lawsuits, and crimes are rather common. But, this is not the major reason.
In the interviews we conducted with the senior staff of colleges and universities, not a single one even mentioned the possibility of child abuse, even though nearly all of them had a major childcare facility on their campus. The major concern was environmental, e.g., if a childcare facility was too close to a dangerous chemical lab.

Most disturbing of all was the fact that we were generally prohibited from interviewing anyone connected with the athletic department. Just as troubling was the fact that the head of the athletic department was least likely to be a member of a campus wide crisis management team, assuming that the college or university had one.

The message was loud and clear. Football and basketball in particular and sports in general are big business. It is not just the sheer amount of revenue that football and basketball attendance bring in, but all of the associated paraphernalia sold in campus stores.

In short, athletics was completely off-limits. It was not to be messed with in any way.
I share the general criticisms that have been levied at big time college athletics. I believe that sports programs are out of control. There is little doubt that they have a major corrupting influence on schools.

However, while the detractors of college sports have been justly critical of the out-of-control recruiting practices at the University of Colorado and USC, just to mention two, they have not thought about the tragedies due to child abuse such as those that have engulfed Penn State.
It’s not that there has been no planning at all for athletic crises, but that crisis planning has been done as if each crisis occurs in complete isolation from all of the others. This is in spite of the fact that no crisis is ever a single crisis. It is a whole series of interconnected ones.

Nonetheless, I am not calling for the complete abandonment of collegiate sports. But, make no mistake about it. Collegiate sports can no longer be conducted as business as usual. One of the most disturbing findings from our surveys was that crisis management had the lowest institutional support of all programs. For instance, while education at all levels was rightly ranked highest in importance, support for crisis management was significantly lower than facilities’ improvement.

The time is way overdue for major colleges and universities to give crisis management the high degree of attention and support it demands.

If I were part of what’s left of Penn State’s top management, I’d be worrying about all the other crises that are brewing and have not yet come to light. For once a major crisis of any kind has occurred, it is highly likely that it will set off a completely unrelated crisis.

All crises are parts of a chain reaction. The purpose of crisis management is to get out in front of the chain so that an institution is not destroyed by a firestorm of never-ending, out-of-control crises.

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November 21, 2011

Blog, Crisis Management, Media + Politics

Too Close for Comfort: Agonizing Similarities Between Penn State and the Catholic Church

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November 17, 2011

Let me state my main conclusions at the outset. In times of a major crisis, every organization is not only judged in terms of how well it manages its crises, but it is also judged in terms of how well or poorly pervious organizations have theirs. In a word, the sins of the fathers are directly visited on the sons. Thus, as different as they are, Penn State is not only judged in terms of all the things it did wrong in handling its repeated episodes of child abuse, but it is the direct inheritor of everything the Church did wrong. In short, Penn State has been made worse because of prior cases of abuse.

I have been researching and consulting with regard to major crises of all kinds (criminal, natural disasters, financial, reputational, etc.) for nearly 30 years. During this time, I have seen all types of organizations become trapped in the same disastrous pattern from which they rarely escape.

First of all, the fact that they have failed to prepare adequately beforehand for a series of crises keeps them from responding appropriately and timely once a crisis has occurred. In today’s world, it’s no longer a question of if a major crisis will strike each and every organization, but only what the particular crisis will be, how it will happen, where, when, why it will occur, who is responsible, and what resulting crises the initial crisis will set off as part of a chain reaction. For if an organization is not prepared for an initial crisis, then it is woefully unprepared for subsequent ones that surely follow.

Second, they fail to learn from the crises of others both within and outside of their industry, type of institution, etc. After all, a crisis couldn’t possibly happen to them because they are obviously different from anyone else.

Third, they fail to pick up and deal with the inevitable early warning signs that precede virtually all crises, and in particular, those that are about to strike them. Long before a crisis actually occurs, it sends out a repeated trail of signals that something is about to pop or has already occurred somewhere in the organization. If one can pick up and attend to these signals, then in many cases one can prevent a crisis from occurring in the first place, the best possible kind of crisis management.

Fourth, they fail to take action against the dominant attitudes in their culture that lead them to believe that they are exempt from crises. In other words, they fail to address and overcome denial. Make no mistake about it; denial is the single worst enemy and fault of all. For instance, if one is not a Church, then how could one possibly learn from the numerous and repeated cases of child abuse that happened within the Catholic Church? Indeed, even if one is, “What happened to them couldn’t possibly apply to us. Therefore, what do they have to teach us?”

Fifth, they are burdened with overly rigid, bureaucratic, and authoritarian structures that prize secrecy and control above all else and thus make it virtually impossible for anyone beneath the very top to take appropriate and timely action. But then, such structures also make it virtually impossible for those at the top to take timely action as well, for the structures exist to protect those at the top from knowing what is really going on at the bottom. In short, in many cases, the top really doesn’t want to know. It’s not just that ignorance is bliss. Rather, ignorance wards off the enormous anxieties that are a fundamental part of having to deal with complex and messy situations that by definition do not have easy and simple solutions.

In this sense, as different as they are, Penn State and the Catholic Church have much in common. Indeed, far too many organizations do.

I could push the analogy. For instance, football is figuratively, if not literally, “religion” in Middle America; coach Paterno was a “minor saint,” etc.

But, I want to make a deeper point that is virtually overlooked unless one is aware of the big picture that only comes with studying crises over a long period of time. The particular crisis an organization, institution, etc. is currently experiencing is almost always related to the same or a very similar set of crises that happened to another organization, and furthermore, that the preceding organization dealt with poorly. That is, all of the failures of the previous organization come home to haunt the current one. The current organization is not only judged against the poor record of the previous organization(s), but through “guilt by identification” it is blamed for all the abuses of the past.

I am obviously not talking about direct causality because one organization does not necessarily cause the crises of others although as The Great Financial Crisis shows this is indeed possible. No, I am talking about an “enduring circle and cycle of blame.”

I am also not talking about “fairness,” for all questions of fairness go out the window once one is “‘convicted’ in the press and elsewhere of ‘unspeakable crimes’ against the most vulnerable members of society.”

As a result, I have a “law of crises.” The time that it takes for a crisis to envelop and potentially destroy an organization and/or individual is inversely proportional to the time that a previous organization has gotten away with a similar set of crises. Thus, if an organization got away with criminal activity of one kind or another for say 10 years, then a current organization will only get away with the same crime for one-tenth of the time if not substantially less. One is not merely punished for one’s crimes, but for all those that came before.

The philosopher Santayana said it best of all: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

The key question is what all organizations will learn from this unforgiveable human tragedy, and what they will do about it to lessen it s chances from occurring in the future. Unfortunately, if the past is any predictor, not much.

If I were what’s left of the top leadership of Penn State, I’d be worried about what other crises are festering in the system!

Originally published on The Huffington Post, November 17, 2011

Blog, Business, Crisis Management

The Age of Super Crises

Originally published in Tikkun, Winter 2011

The notion of healing or repairing the world is more vital than ever. Indeed, with the advent of super crises, it has taken a whole new meaning.

For over twenty-five years, I have researched and consulted on some of the major crises of our time. These include the Tylenol poisonings in 1982, September 11, Katrina, BP’s spill in the Gulf, and the latest toxic sludge in Hungary.

Crises have the potential to destroy entire industries, bring down governments, and adversely affect large regions of the globe. Not only are they bigger, costlier, and deadlier, but they come at us faster and faster. We are engaged worldwide in the wrong kind of contest.

Consider the latest toxic spill in Hungary. To put it in terms that anyone can grasp, it is as though we filled up the entire Empire State Building with some of the worst stuff imaginable, tipped the building completely on its side, and then spilled the full contents on the ground. The resulting mess would have filled an area of approximately seventeen square blocks, or slightly over a half-mile in any direction. The Hungarian spill is estimated to be 264 million gallons, compared to the 190 million gallons that BP spilled in the Gulf. In the long run, it may also be more toxic.

As BP and the latest disaster demonstrate all too well, reacting after a crisis has occurred is not sufficient. If one is not well prepared before, then reacting not only fails to contain the initial crisis but actually makes it worse.

The good news is that there are model companies that not only want to do the right things to protect the environment, but have actually learned what to do in order to substantially lower the chances of producing super crises. In short, they have learned how to be prepared for a wide range of crises. Unfortunately, the bad news is that crisis-prepared companies make up only 15 percent to 20 percent of all companies at best. The remaining 75 percent to 80 percent are thereby crisis-prone. They are mega disasters just waiting to happen.

If crisis-prone companies are unwilling to learn and change on their own, then government has no alternative but to step in, monitor them closely, and require them to behave responsibly.

This will not, of course, please those who are calling for less government. But, government exists to protect its citizens from those dangers from which they cannot protect themselves.

Make no mistake about it. Super crises pose as severe a danger as any we face. The risks are now as dangerous as terrorism. They are certainly as big a threat as global warming.

Originally published in Tikkun, Winter 2011