An Opportunity to Learn



“Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.” 

–John Adams 

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis. ‘ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.” 

–John F. Kennedy 

 “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

–Winston Churchill

By Chris Servello

We have all seen the quotes and heard the anecdotes…progress from chaos, the brush strokes of crisis, learning in times of adversity. Up until now, however, Americans likely didn’t have occasion to ponder the significance or value of those sayings. As a career communicator, I’d used similar thoughts in speeches or writings for my bosses but had given little thought to what opportunity from crisis might mean at the national, organizational or individual levels. That all changed last week.

 If the last week of social distancing and routine change have taught me anything, it’s that Adams, Kennedy and Churchill were dead-on. With the right mindset and willingness to take and give critical feedback, ample opportunity to learn and improve lies within this crisis. 

I hope our national, civic and business leaders are taking this same opportunity to learn, improve and push their organizations forward in the face of great adversity.

Week One Lessons:

 1)    At a national level—Americans are not ready for a major conflagration or conflict. Despite the lip service about preparing for competition with Russia and China, the last several weeks have demonstrated we are not prepared to deal with a major cyber or kinetic attack on the homeland. Our collective psyche, economic supply chains and willingness to break routine is not up to the task. This isn’t meant to be a poke, simply an observation and opportunity to learn from where we fell short in preparing for coronavirus. At the community, business and individual family levels, we need to learn from what worked and what didn’t going into the crisis. Should our national utility grid or economic system come under attack from a foreign adversary, we are likely to face similar changes to our lifestyle. Will we collectively rise to the occasion? The Coronavirus crisis shows we may have a long way to go.

2)    At an organizational level–The quality of our leaders matters. Whether that leadership is in the White House, state house, board room or school board, we must trust in those making decisions and sharing information. Without that bond, little gets done and anxiety and uncertainty skyrockets. I’m not sure the current political campaign structure or succession/development planning in industry takes into account how leaders will act in crisis. Perhaps after this experience we will take the opportunity to judge candidates differently, develop subordinates more thoughtfully or even select who we work for differently. 

3)    At an individual level–There is no rising to the occasion…you are who you are. It doesn’t matter if you are the President of the United States, the President of Marriott or a local mayor, the idea that you will somehow transform and be someone new in moments of crisis isn’t realistic. If you are calm, cool and collected chances are high that you will respond that way to adversity. I’ve tried very hard to learn from the behavior of others, as well as to be self-critical about my own routine and abilities during this time. There is a genuine opportunity to identify “goods” to emulate and “bads” to avoid when it comes to communicating and leading in times of uncertainty. Key in that process is self-awareness. Being genuine is central to maintaining  and building trust. Prioritizing time to think or spend time with your team to identify areas of personal and organizational improvement is a missed opportunity and the surest way to repeat the same mistakes the next time you have to navigate rough water.

We are weeks removed from the onset of this current crisis…and we are likely several weeks or months away from full containment. It is impossible to know when “normal” might return, if it does at all. I hope leaders (and followers) at all levels are taking notes and settling in for the long game. Adams, Kennedy and Churchill had it right – this is an “opportunity.”  What we need to remember – in light of what has happened so far – is that failure is just as much of a plausible outcome as success, unless we make a concerted effort to learn.

Chris Servello is a retired Navy public affairs officer and co-founder of Provision Advisors, a DC, Northern Virginia and Annapolis based communication and PR firm. He supports the Defense & Aerospace Report in digital marketing, brand growth and as a special events producer.

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