My 3 year old just had a crisis. Her sleeper zipper was stuck. She responded with tears, anger, pulling, refused help initially, said "I CAN DO IT MYSELF," yet ultimately in despair she tore at the sleeper and cried out "Daddy, help me!" as she collapsed on the floor in tears.
How do we handle crisis? Much of leadership is defined by that ability. How does the leader respond when we encounter a crisis we have caused or one brought upon us by outside forces. Much ink has been spilled on this topic, particularly by the seminal author on crisis leadership, Irving Janis. This should be unsurprising given the inevitability of crisis in leadership, yet so many leaders, or aspiring leaders, appear to have paid little attention.
Today is December 7th. The 74th anniversary of the devasting attacks by the empire of Japan against the United States Pacific Navy stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In this devastating surprise attack the Japanese forces rendered the U.S. Pacific fleet basically non-operational and killed almost 4,000 sailers and personnel. It was a day, as President Rooselvelt frankly stated, that "will live in Infamy."
The navy was in crisis. A native Texan, Admiral Chester Nimitz, born in the late 1800's in the small hill country town of Fredricksburg, was the fleet admiral of the Pacific. Chester was raised without a father (he died while Chester was in utero). Instead, his paternal grandfather, who had served in the German Merchant Marine and was later a Texas Ranger, became a guiding influence. He famously told Chester, "the sea – like life itself – is a stern taskmaster. The best way to get along with either is to learn all you can, then do your best and don't worry – especially about things over which you have no control." This advice would be a good guide, especially for dealing with crises that came from outside the control of the Admiral.
Surveying the damage brought on by the surprise attack Nimitz was asked about his reaction to the devastation. It would have been understandable for him to react in anger. Why were they not more prepared? To find a scapegoat. Who was the blame? Who was manning the radar? Why didn't they discover the convey of Japanese ships and planes? He could have called immediately for major counter attacks, for which his forces were far too depleted. He could have made excuses and tried to cover up the devastating losses. Or he could have even fallen into despair and resign in failure.
Nimitz of course did none of these things. Instead, when asked what he thought he responded with a question, "The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?"
An adept leader in crisis Nimitz reframed the issue. He asked a question, implying he had an answer, but he pushed his followers to rethink their responses. He adapted the leadership situation. He acknoweldged the tremendous losses but did not dwell in fear and negativity. Instead he reframed the issues, pointed out the tremendous resources still at his disposal, and led his followers to see opportunity in the midst of loss and crisis (his famous 3 mistakes response is summarized below from his 12 page report "Reflections on Pearl Harbor" published in 1985 by the Admiral Nimitz Center).
Out of the disaster of Pearl Harbor came several years of hard fought, sacrificial battle. All was not resolved by this one statement and report. But this moment of leadership in crisis was an essential piece towards moving the community towards healing and future success. Nimitz did not retreat, build walls, find someone to blame, or make himself the issue. Instead he pointed to a future and encouraged followers to find a hopeful future with him.
We live in a time when the focus of too many of our leaders is just the opposite. To point to what we don't have, who to blame, and make audacious claims that they could have and would do better. Like my 3 year old, they refuse to ask for help and then in anger throw a fit blaming everyone but themselves for the situation.
Many of these claims have none of the clarity and backing of Nimitz's short 3 mistake summation in response to crisis. Terror strikes Paris, we want to close our borders and shut out refugees. Another mass shooting, we should ban all guns. Rhetoric without substance pours onto our radios, tv screens, and social media outlets. Self serving echo chambers develop that create a narrative that asks nothing of those who promote it but instead blames others for any problems.
This world needs more leaders like Nimitz who are not seeking after cheap political points. Who see the challenges and take those challenges seriously and offer not sound bite solutions but substantitive conversation that encourages us, the followers, to lead alongside them. This is not easy leadership because frankly, most of us don't want to be led or to sacrifice anything. We want a saviour to come and fix it for us. Nimitz didn't offer that. Instead he pointed to the resources the community had and offered hope that together they could rebuild.
So the next time you hear someone telling you exactly what you want to hear or what you expect to hear, think critically. What are they offering me and why? Are they just fitting into the narrative I already believe to be true? Is this a 3 year old solution? Blaming everyone else but me? Or are they challenging me to see the crisis differently, to reframe the issues, and pointing all of the community to hope? That is leadership.
Nimitz's 3 Mistake Analysis
Mistake one : The attack was on Sunday morning. Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were on shore leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk-- 38,000 men would have been lost instead of 3,800.
Mistake two : When the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking those battleships, they never once bombed the dry docks opposite those ships. If the dry docks had been destroyed, every salvagable ship would have to have been towed to the west coast to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised. One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.
Mistake number three : Every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is in top of the ground storage tanks five miles away over that hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply.