Navigating an Organizational Crisis: A book review by Bob Morris

Navigating Org CrisisNavigating an Organizational Crisis: When Leadership Matters Most
Henry Hutson and Martha Johnson
Praeger/An Imprint of ABC-CLIO (2016)

“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/ To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Tennyson’s Ulysses

Curious, I checked the etymology of the word “crisis.” What I learned is that it is the Latinized form of Greek krisis “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), literally “judgment, result of a trial, selection,” from krinein “to separate, decide, judge,” from PIE root krei– “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (source also of krinesthai “to explain”). No head-snapping revelation there insofar as western derivations are concerned.

However, I also learned that the Chinese character for the word ”crisis” has two meanings: peril and opportunity. I think this is what Henry Hutson and Martha Johnson may have had in mind when examining hundreds of situations in which “leadership matters most.” In the Introduction, most of which is written in the third-person voice, they explain why they wrote the book. There seem to be three primary reasons: To share what they have learned from their own experiences, to share what they learned from several dozen interviews of leaders and other sources, and finally, to help those who read the book to be better prepared to coped with a world that now seems more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any time that I (at least) can remember.

Hutson and Johnson make brilliant use of a metaphor, “the rogue wave,” throughout their lively narrative. It may be helpful to know that in his eponymous book, Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses his concept of the black swan to explain:

o The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology.

o The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities).

o The psychological biases that blind people, both individually and collectively, to uncertainty and to a rare event’s massive role in historical affairs.

Opinions may differ about specific events as to whether or not they are “rogue waves,” “black swans,” etc. Also, many claims to have “seen it coming” are made after the fact. (George Kennan once observed that Russian historians predict the past with “uncommon accuracy.”) The key point remains the same and Hutson and Johnson nail it: Effective leadership is most important when a major crisis occurs.

I am reminded of William Faulkner’s characterization of courage as “grace under duress.” Many people feel terrorized by an organizational crisis and may be paralyzed by fear or feel compelled to take ill-advised action. Leaders such as Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger no doubt felt serious fear when realizing that he had to land U.S. Air flight 1549 on the Hudson River (January 21, 2009) because he had no alternatives. He remained calm and everyone survived. Sullenberg’s personal life and professional career demonstrate a process by which he developed an ability to do what must be done if and when a crisis occurs.

I commend Henry Hutson and Martha Johnson on their provision of information, insights, and counsel that can help almost anyone become better prepared to “navigate” their way through a crisis, whatever its nature and extent may be. Most readers can easily identify with the real-world examples on which they focus. This is one of those thought-provoking books that can function both as a window to gain wider and different perspectives on our world, and, a mirror to gain a better understanding of who we are and who we aren’t, but also who we can become.

Meanwhile, we are well-advised to keep in mind this suggestion by Margaret Mead: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

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