Judge Crisis Leaders By Their Course Corrections

This is a post as much to myself as to my readers (Thank you!).

I have spent most of my professional life facilitating teams from good to great business process improvement to dumpster fire-interventions. Regarding these crises events, there are two kinds of work: first, solve the immediate problem and stabilize the situation, then secondly, after an after-action analysis, design and implement better practices that prevent a recurrence.

It is pointless to criticize leaders for not doing something good sooner. We simply don’t live with a real-time awareness of the events that trigger a crisis. Hindsight points out what was missed or not appreciated at the time. What matters is what one does with what one is focused.

We judge leaders in crisis management moments by the quality of their course corrections. Meaning, how fast can they cycle their OODA Loop. How fast do they Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. When two combat aircraft meet in arial combat (the perspective John Boyd applied to develop OODA Loop theory), the combatant that cycled the best OODA loop won. If the opponents are otherwise equal, the faster OODA loop won the day. Save the “What and why things went wrong?” questions for later — after the crisis is managed and when it is time to do so. Bugging crisis managers with whining and complaining about how and why things are FUBAR is a distraction to be rebuffed.

I have watched President Trump’s cycling through this COVID-19 crisis OODA Loop with no small interest. (My own company’s primary service is on pause because it requires teams to meet in person.) The simplest tasks are ridiculously complicated at very high frequency. Diagnose, isolate and treat a few COVID-19 virus-infected patients with a ventilator in a sealed room is not that difficult (respecting it is technical work). To treat hundreds of such patients in hundreds of locations, ramping up a capability from a near standing start within a few weeks is a massively complex undertaking with potentially catastrophic unintended consequences, like collapsing our economy. Our expectations from our government at all levels is at a wartime high.

I’m pretty impressed with the President so far. To be clear, I find his communication style a bit obnoxious, especially his use of conversation-leading and framing on Twitter. It is a very effective persuasion and negotiation entry technique. It includes exaggeration and hyperbole and setting expectations well above the actual satisfactory agreement positions. Mr. Trump’s fake news counter-punching has destroyed the media’s monopoly on setting the terms of public debate.

Setting that aside, is the president’s OODA Loop spun up? I think so. For example, his appointment of Ambassador Deborah Bisx, MD for the White House Coronavirous Response Coordinator is spot on. She is a fabulously informed and articulate expert on infectious diseases having managed the nation’s work on HIV/AIDS reductions. He has made a number of startling decisions that appear to be based on the advice of our very best scientists. He’s has not delegated the one thing he must absolutely accomplish — project the right attitude and demonstrate the right core values. We will beat this virus, no matter what, for the right reasons, using every resource available, including winning the national narrative.

After the dust clears and this crisis is in our rear view mirror, it will be time to assess Mr. Trump’s performance. Will he have set us on a course for new policies and practices based on the lessons learned?

In the mean time, how am I executing my OODA Loop? For my business. And my life.

P.S. The leader I am most impressed with is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. His articulate, straight-talking briefings are simply superb.