The Bible offers leaders advice when dealing with a crisis- plan, think, act, and have faith in your people to accomplish the mission (2 Chronicles 20).
I have not written anything about crisis management, nor do I pretend to be a crisis management expert. However, I have been involved in many crises either at the higher headquarters level or at the unit level. I served ten tours in Afghanistan and have been involved in many crises on the African continent. I have served in the Pentagon- on the Joint Staff twice and the OSD staff once. I have also served on the Army Staff. I have served in a combatant command (US AFRICOM) as the Deputy Director for Operations. I have been a squad leader and have commanded units from the platoon level to the division command level. So, I do have something to say about crisis management and how the military responds to crises.
More has been written about crisis management and leadership than many other topics, yet today’s military struggles with both. Crisis management depends on competent leadership, decentralized organizational structure, empowerment, and trust. Stephen Covey pointed out, If you don’t choose to do it in leadership time up front, you do it in crisis management time down the road.”
You can have a crisis management policy, define all the steps, know all the ABCs of crisis management, and have written the book on crisis management, but if you do not have competent leadership that will stand by their people, decentralize organization structure, empower subordinates, and trust, you will fail at crisis management and have mediocre strategic and operational outcomes in many other areas. There are always opportunities in a crisis. In a crisis, there is always a danger of doing the right thing, the wrong thing, or doing nothing. There are always positive and negative consequences. The goal of crisis management is to achieve the best outcome possible while accepting risk, providing top cover for your people, and understanding that there is no perfect solution.
“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets people to do the greatest things.”
The Crisis Management Leader Types
Then there are the “I want to be in charge” type and the “I have a problem with every solution” type. The other type is the “I know everything about everything,” and we are all familiar with the type that requires “everything to be done their way.” The worst is the one that comes in at the 11th hour and throws a turd in the punch bowl. All of these types will be there to celebrate success but are nowhere to be found when the work, questions, and challenges arise.
Another issue the military has is creating an environment where everything feels like a crisis, and everyone wants to be a firefighter. Organizations need to be able to properly discern when a crisis team is required as opposed to existing teams in the organization overcoming common obstacles themselves. Ninety-Eight percent of the time, existing teams can handle any situation. The other 2% of the time requires a crisis management team.
Unfortunately, the senior leadership will press the crisis management button and completely turn the organization upside down. This will kick in an excessive amount of meetings, sleepless nights, and unproductive solutions that create more problems than they solve. The teams currently in place who know they can handle the crisis, but are not asked, will then question their value to the organization.
I always found that the best solutions come from the lowest level, and it is the responsibility of the senior leaders to take those solutions, resource them and make them work. In my opinion, the smartest person in the room is usually the one closest to the problem, not the one with the highest rank.
Crisis management in action. American special operations forces rescue over 100 people from our embassy in Sudan. Video from YouTube and ABC News.
An Anecdote and a Solution
Here is an anecdote. When I started working at USAFRICA Command in August of 2013 as the Deputy Director for Operations, my boss General Rodriguez, asked me to ensure our operations center was functional and to streamline our ability to handle crisis management. In short, I asked many officers, NCOs, and civilians in the command what they thought the problems were and what needed to be fixed. I went to our subordinate commands and asked them the same question. I went to our interagency partners and asked them the same question. I went to the Joint Staff and our OSD partners and asked them the question. To sum it up, US AFRICOM did not do crisis management well and was not considered easy to work with.
What we discovered was that US AFRICOM did not approach crisis management in the most effective way. One problem was that instead of being managed by the Operations Directorate, crisis management was run by the Chief of Staff. This created a problem of timeliness of reporting and centralization issues that interfered with the decentralization of execution, and as a result, the flow of information was too slow. Another problem was that too many people were involved, leading to confusion, redundancy, and analysis paralysis. During an identified crisis, more generals and admirals descended upon the operations center than was needed to deal with the problem. Every senior civilian was involved in the process. The sausage-making was done in front of the Commander, which did not lend itself to confidence in course of action development and decision-making. Twenty-Four-hour shifts were set up without regard to the necessity and workload. That undermined the everyday business of the command. Finally, instead of allowing the operations director to leverage the chief of staff to provide the support and resources needed within the command, the chief of staff involved the entire command in managing a crisis which caused other critical and necessary command functions to be ignored.
After identifying the problem and offering a solution to General Rodriguez, our ability to conduct the day-to-day operations improved significantly, and our crisis management became one of the most effective among the combatant commands. This did not make the senior leaders in the command happy, but it was the right decision by General Rodriguez.
Over time we proved that small teams solve big problems, and large teams solve small problems.
By establishing a small crisis response team, decentralizing execution, empowering subordinates, and establishing trust, we created an effective crisis management process in US AFRICOM under General Rodriguez’s leadership.
“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
— Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States
Donald C. Bolduc