Resilient Communities are the Foundations of a Resilient America.

Leadership, Learning and Trust

If you’re at all like me (I know – horrible thought!), you cringe whenever you hear a community leader say that stopping a hurricane/flood/drought… from happening will make their community more resilient.  While I recognize that preventing loss is a part of a community’s resilience, it’s a relatively small part.

If I’m a community leader – in fact, any kind of leader – my job is positive motion.  That means that I have to know my community’s “environment” and move the community away from the potholes and pitfalls and closer to the Promised Land (sorry – couldn’t pass up the alliteration).  Obviously I can’t be everywhere and see everything so I have to have sensors that can see more and different things than I can.  I also need translators and interpreters to extract meaning from all of the data I’m receiving.

When I was an interrogator in Viet Nam, the officers I would brief wanted to know three things about the information I gave them:

  • Its timeliness – when was the information current?
  • Its accuracy – how well did it reflect the situation on the ground?
  • Its trustworthiness – how much trust did I have in the source of the data (they’d already decided how much trust they could put into my judgment as the interpreter of the data)?

In fact, the Army (being the Army) even had a ranking system that we would use to “grade” the information we reported.

Community leaders responsible for taking action are no different than those officers I briefed:  positive action is their primary product.  Leaders in highly resilient communities thus try to make their communities into learning organizations.

  • They anticipate events that might occur and identify triggers for action.  In essence, for each type of disruption, they identify a pattern that incoming data should conform to.  When the data matches that pattern, action is triggered.
  • They “deploy” as many “sensors” as they can afford to provide the data needed to trigger action.  The costs they must consider may be financial but most importantly include the time necessary to process the data.
  • Community leaders try to plan for disruptions beforehand.  They practice those plans so that actions almost become automatic.
  • Leaders in highly resilient communities try to push responsibility for action to as low a level as possible in the community and to the organization best able to give a positive response.  They recognize that government shouldn’t always take the lead; the nature of the disruption the community faces should determine that.
  • The leadership empowers every member of the community to both deploy his or her own sensors, and to act as a sensor for the community.  This presupposes a level of trust – all of the community members have to have a general sense of community direction.

Two examples – one positive, one negative.  I had the pleasure of working with a community out west in an “active listening” mode.  The community leaders were anticipating a significant shock to the local economy.  The dynamic City Manager oversaw a very flat city government, and had empowered each of her department heads to gather information and to interpret it.  In this case, she and her department heads worked intimately with the local Chamber of Commerce to develop and implement a plan to recover from the economic shock they had anticipated.  Through working together before, they had developed mutual trust.  Together, the Chamber and the City recognized that each had a role to play.  In fact, most of the actions in the recovery plan they developed were taken by the Chamber and its members.

The snowstorm that brought Atlanta to its knees in January, 2014, provides a negative example.  Shortly after he took office, Governor Deal of Georgia fired the long-time State Meteorologist, apparently for ideological reasons.  First mistake – not only did he cast his administration adrift from a large array of sensors, but he hindered its ability to interpret incoming weather data.  Second mistake – apparently no one anticipated a massive snowstorm, so appropriate triggers for action had not been identified.

Then, the storm hit.  The community began to take uncoordinated and sometimes contradictory actions.  Third mistake – because there was a lack of trust among the different municipalities and counties involved and the severity of the event had not been anticipated, the community did not have a coordinated plan for dealing with the crisis.  In effect, the governor was the community’s leader-in-chief and was flying blind.  Fourth mistake – the governor did not act in a timely manner, in large part because he did not know how to interpret the rather confusing signals coming from the National Weather Service and was unwilling to empower anyone else to take action.  Fortunately, only a few lives were lost, but a little more snow or cold could have been resulted in scores of deaths.

Perhaps the root cause of this crisis-that-shouldn’t-have-been was the lack of trust within the community.  Without trust, there can’t be a common understanding of community direction.  Without a common understanding, actions taken by members of the community are almost certain to be uncoordinated and most likely will interfere with each other.  But building trust isn’t easy, especially in culturally diverse urban communities.  It takes time, and it takes the will on the part of all to come together and find common ground.  It is that common ground that sets fixed points on the community’s mental maps.  It is those fixed points that lead to a common understanding of what direction is positive so that the community can become more resilient.  Without trust, the leadership can’t and the community won’t be able to learn.