Saturday, August 04, 2007

Patience Wearing Thin: Too Many Preventable Crises

Here we go again: more infrastructure crises that need not have happened. This week’s collapse of a major bridge in Minnesota is becoming a recurring nightmare about public safety. The pattern is all too familiar. Somewhere along the line, leaders in key positions have made decisions, or passed on making decisions that would have prevented catastrophe.

It’s not as if there is a lack of solid data. Just as with the Katrina crisis, a prior report by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ was dusted off and re-read in the new context. There was the stark warning in its 2005 report: considerable “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete” infrastructure, including the Minnesota bridge. That’s hard to take when people lose their lives.

In fairness, our political leaders must choose from a multitude of competing priorities. They suffer from constant information overload as they wade through reports from credible sources. Many of their decisions no doubt do prevent crises. However, this priority area on roads, bridges, dams, water and sewer pipes, etc., is getting ahead of them. The short term and the long term are not in synch.

One author in the newspapers suggested that the engineers aren’t good at lobbying. Whether that’s a fact is beside the point. Does it have to boil down to whom is better at lobbying than another?

In our complex world, perhaps this is a reality for leaders. Leading up (read “lobbying”) is a fact of life and a skill to be honed. As Michael Useem asserts in Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss So You Both Win, upward leadership assures that advice arrives from all points of the compass.

In case after case, Useem demonstrates that leaders’ coaching the leaders above to ‘macro think’ “transforms incipient disaster into shining triumph”. Great navigation skills are essential to ensure that the responsibility for leading up does not end up a career-limiting exercise in frustration. Thus, thoughtful leadership attentive to the process is a must. As the Spanish ambassador to Tehran said during the 1979 hostage crisis following the Iranian Revolution: “Patience is a bitter cup that only the strong can drink.”

1 comment:

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