Fortunately, few of us will have to deal personally with the hard decisions posed by the increasingly tense standoff on the Korean Peninsula. Most corporate decisions, thankfully, don’t involve nuclear weapons and the life or death of millions of people.
Still, as this dangerous matter continues to unfold, it has lessons to teach those of us who face challenges that, while not quite as momentous, bear important similarities.
Too often, we tend to define “crisis” too narrowly – as something that comes up almost out of nowhere, has a clear beginning and end, and then goes away. But the Korea crisis – and more business crises than we might like to imagine – is the opposite. It has festered since the armistice halted the Korean War in 1953 but the underlying political animosities remained. While some problems are solved by the passage of time, others seem only to get worse, no matter how many intelligent people over the years try to resolve, or at least contain, them. Now, after more than 60 years, this long-simmering problem is becoming an acute crisis.
It’s not too hard to imagine a corporate equivalent – a long-term problem for which there seems no obvious solution, only a range of alternatives that seem to run from bad to worse. It may involve a family business in which the paterfamilias is aging but the children who might take over the business are squabbling and unprepared. Then he dies suddenly and the long-simmering problem becomes an acute crisis.
Or it might involve a business stuck in a declining industry that, no matter how well managed, faces external forces it can’t control – think American railroads in the 1960s or any number of other industries facing disruptive technologies, from taxicabs to TV.
For these organizations, these long-term crises can lead to the “bunker mentality” I describe in “Brand Under Fire,” except it sets in so slowly that it may be nearly imperceptible, and the accompanying decline in morale may deprive the company of the ability to manage the more acute crisis that almost inevitably comes.
What can you do?
- Be aware of the signs of a “bunker mentality” – failure to communicate effectively, reflexive hostility and retreat into an “us against them” mentality, self-pity, etc.
- Keep communication lines open to allies and outsiders, including consultants and mentors who can help widen your own perspective and help you see opportunities that you may be missing.
- Make sure you are thoroughly and accurately monitoring the conversation that’s taking place around you. Be perceptive of where changes in the environment may create the possibility of changing the paradigm and breaking out of the bunker.
- Develop realistic hypothetical crisis scenarios and simulate them. It will identify your vulnerabilities, but it may also identify opportunities and new ways to address your long-term challenges.
Seemingly intractable long-term problems, whether in Korea or the boardroom, can wear down the best of us. But strong leadership and a commitment to preparedness can help prevent an acute crisis from striking the fatal blow.