Stop planting the seeds of failure

The airplane crashes; the hospital bursts into flames; the business collapses. All these tragedies share something in common—a spectacular failure that demands action. Crisis managers and pundits are quick to look for answers and access blame. The pilot froze; the mapping software crashed; the trader was desperate. General William Hickman (MG-R US Army) points to something more than a single mistake—a long chain of failures that culminate in the observed tragedy.

As lead investigator for the mistaken 2015 MSF hospital airstrike in Afghanistan, General Hickman acknowledges the pain of the devastating catastrophe that killed 42 civilians. But he argues that the crises started long before the shooting. As with nearly any crisis in business, government, or military, the underlying failures happened months, days, hours, and seconds before the devastation. The “crisis” had be going on long before the tragedy and would have continued had the incident not occurred.

With over 36 years of leadership experience, General Hickman knew the fingerprints he would find investigating the airstrike: poor planning; poor senior leadership; complacency; training failures; technology failures; intelligence failures; and on and on. All were seeds of the disaster planted long ago. No single failure was responsible. Rather, a chain reaction of failures destroyed the hospital. The same thing could be said for any major business failure, from botched product launches to accounting scandals.

Hickman noted that organizations need 3 key elements to avert crises:

  1. Leaders with courage, character, vision, and guidance. Identifying and removing the seeds of a crisis requires courage and character. Setting the right tone requires a clear vision and ensuring the team has the guidance to see the vision.
  2. Organizational trust. Without trust, the seeds of failure sprout, and fear prevents others from stopping the chain reaction. Organizations must reward truth-telling—regardless of the consequences—and that requires a culture of trust and buy-in to the vision.
  3. Practice. Decision-making is refined through practice. Many situations are unpredictable, and decision-makers must “play the cards they are dealt.” To make better decisions, they need practice and lots of it.

In the end, Hickman argues that crisis management is all about leaders and organizations that strive daily to break the failure chain. To hear more from my interview with General Hickman (MG-R, US Army), watch the video. We discuss crisis management, change management, and what it means to be a master of leadership.

Leadership Notes is a blog and video series on leadership.  Through interviews with leaders from both the private and public sector, Johnson examines key leadership issues like empowerment, team development, and cultural dexterity.  The blog also addresses topics such as learning from failure, the importance of friendship, and the role leaders play in developing organizational culture.

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