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Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph

Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph

by James Lee Witt, James Morgan

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From the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, how to manage your business in the face of challenge, change, and potential disaster.

For James Lee Witt, the man who rebuilt America's emergency response system, the most inspiring and effective lessons — about responsibility, team building, planning, and taking action — have


From the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, how to manage your business in the face of challenge, change, and potential disaster.

For James Lee Witt, the man who rebuilt America's emergency response system, the most inspiring and effective lessons — about responsibility, team building, planning, and taking action — have guided real-life heroes through extraordinary situations. These lessons can be applied to business to guide you through the pressures you face each week — or once in a career or a lifetime.

Whether describing earthquake preparation in California, moving a Missouri town out of a floodplain, or shoring up walls and spirits after the Oklahoma City bombing, Witt captures the moments when leaders step forward, how they motivate others, and what they need to triumph over adversity. Witt's home-spun wisdom teaches us to "Tear Down the Stovepipes" to build effective teamwork by thinking horizontally, not vertically; to find energizing people who improve morale, whether a V.P.'s secretary or a key client, since "A Lightning Rod Works Both Ways"; and to establish systems for capturing what happens — what goes right and what goes wrong — to ensure that every challenge leaves you "Stronger in the Broken Places."

To bring home the ten lessons in this inspiring and useful book, Witt shares examples and strategies from corporations — from Malden Mills and Intel to Swissair and Kmart — who have overcome crisis by applying the same principles to their business every day.

A native of Arkansas, James Lee Witt served as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1993 until 2001, and he transformed FEMA into a customer-focused model for crisis management. An international consultant and motivational speaker, he lives in Washington, D.C. James Morgan is the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Distance to the Moon and co-author of Leading with My Heart, Virginia Kelley's bestselling memoir of raising Bill Clinton. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
James Lee Witt has become one of the most identifiable figures in a new cottage industry: disaster consultant to corporate America. Working in much the same way as epidemiologists who formerly might have taken government jobs . . . [he's] a master of disaster.
Publishers Weekly
Witt's first book, co-written with author Morgan (The Distance to the Moon), addresses business leaders struggling with the ever-present possibility of disaster. Witt, who served as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1993 until 2001, here shares dozens of anecdotes about crisis management. The examples are not all business-related (e.g., one details the burning of a California family's home), but all are designed to teach leaders how to respond to emergencies. Witt divides the book into four sections: crisis preparation, prevention, response and recovery. Each section includes real-life events, such as the Oklahoma City bombing and a Missouri flood, and concludes with some important points for leaders ("measure the gap and make the leap," "map out the ripple effects" and "aim high-but never take your eye off your foundation"). The book has a storytelling feel to it-Witt frequently speaks in the first person-which should appeal to patient managers who want plenty of yarns with their business advice. Agent, Michael Carlisle. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Soundview Executive Book Summaries
As the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1993 until 2001, James Lee Witt witnessed some of the worst crises Mother Nature, chance and certain humans had to offer — earthquakes, floods, airline crashes, the Oklahoma City bombing, and more. Through it all, he not only drastically improved the reputation FEMA had among lawmakers and crisis victims and survivors alike (his leadership rescued the flagging agency), he also developed a strategy for managing crises — a customer-centric model that served him and his staff well. In Stronger in the Broken Places, Witt lays out the plan, peppering his instruction with observations gleaned from his years at FEMA and from research into how companies handle emergencies great and small. If you're facing a crisis, Witt's ideas are a vital resource.

Finding your roots, the values that are too important to rip out from under your organization, comes first, long before a crisis hits, if you are going to be successful. Know-how comes from know-why. To build the plan your company needs to make decisions and exercise its "core value muscles," you should:

  • Identify, communicate and practice your values. Know what you value and why and how you value it. Communicate your values in terms that don't require crunching numbers.
  • Reassess your mission statement and what it means to projects, clients, products and individuals. It should clearly point to your values, acting as a primary indicator of the decisions your company will make.
  • Practice triage. Incorporate "what if" scenarios into your meetings on product development, client relations and other areas. Assess and prioritize the way values are communicated.
  • Give yourself regular "know-why" performance reviews. Let your people know you're paying attention to how your core values are exercised on a daily basis. Conduct reviews that deal exclusively with your employees' decision-making to determine how well your organization's core values are put into practice.

In the section Preventing Crisis, Witt offers these bits of advice:

  • Launch a probe. If the same crisis keeps hitting you again and again, find the patterns in the crisis and its causes and use them to your advantage. Create a list of attributes and study them, with the goal of using them to create a prevention plan.
  • Measure the gap and make the leap. Even though you can see a crisis pattern doesn't mean you or others aren't going to be resistant to change. That's why measuring is so important — at some point, the cumulative losses (sales lost, crises recovered from, etc.) will reach a breaking point. Quantify your problems as negatives and find positives to counterbalance them.
  • Map out the ripple effects. Once you've decided to change direction, you need to identify the potential crises that will pop up in the repercussions of your decision. Will your people require new training? Will you have to lay off staff? How will morale be affected? Ask for input from the affected people, when possible, to minimize the negative responses to your decision.
  • Map out the new terrain. Put your prevention plan into place, making sure everyone knows it, and knows their role in preventing a crisis. Plans are essential, but it's your employees that make your plan a reality.
  • Prevent now, prevent later. Some portion of responding to a crisis is preventing it from spreading. Long-term prevention plans help you look at the big picture; short-term prevention plans fall back on your values and plans of action — don't confuse the two. Preventing now doesn't automatically help you prevent the same crisis from happening again.

In the section of his book titled Responding to a Crisis, Witt presents these benefits of personal and professional support systems in a time of crisis. You can harness the power of such support systems by doing the following:

  • Building some twine. Twine is stronger than string; anyone who has tied up a package can testify to the difference. In your organization, the "twine" can be an incident support team that draws on experts from different areas of your company who can coordinate responses in a time of crisis.
  • Reaching out to people. Take an immediate and literal inventory of how a crisis is affecting your company as well as the people and businesses around you. Identify where their needs and your needs can serve one another, or where serving their needs is crucial to your handling of the crisis at hand.
  • Viewing everyone as your customer. Evaluate the short-term costs and effectiveness of a response, in the light of long-term benefits.
  • Remembering the weeding and feeding. Require open communication with employees, clients and partners, and maintain contact with those you might not work with on a regular basis. Draw a map of this support network, and share contacts generously.

In the section called Recovering From Crisis, Witt reurges managers to remember:

  • A crisis is equal parts danger and opportunity. A crisis gives people a chance to demonstrate leadership that can be valuable not just in a crisis.
  • Learn to view down times as a chance to stop, listen and look. Take advantage of these times to ramp up neglected projects.
  • Don't let your mistakes and successes go into a vacuum. Collect every bit of knowledge you can about your crisis response, how your crisis preparations held up, and what you can improve for the future.
  • Crisis is the mother of invention. Recovery is a chance to lay new foundations and support beams.

A crisis usually isn't the end. More often than not it's the beginning. Copyright © 2003 Soundview Executive Book Summaries

From the Publisher
"Stronger in the Broken Places distills real wisdom . . . The lessons it imparts prove to be critical to citizens and businesses coping with the hardest times imaginable." -Frank Keating, Governor of Oklahoma

"One of the most identifiable figures in a new cottage industry: disaster consultant to corporate America . . . A master of disaster." -The Wall Street Journal

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.38(w) x 11.26(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt



This book, which was one-fourth done on September 11, 2001, when crisis took on a new meaning in our lives, is about handling crisis. It is also, by its very nature, a book about leaders.

We tend to toss the word crisis around pretty loosely, to the point that it sometimes covers everything from death to dentures. But my dictionary defines crisis as "a crucial or decisive point or situation; a turning point." Crises are turning points—defining moments in our lives when we can choose to lead.

Life does — must — go on, a fact that cuts to the heart of what I mean by "handling crisis." You've heard the old saying about keeping your head while all around you others are losing theirs? That's part of what I mean — maintaining a presence of mind, and a sense of proportion, in the midst of the worst calamities. Some people are constitutionally better equipped for this than others, but there are skills that can be taught — about such things as team building, prioritizing, support groups, and even self-discipline. Remember this above all: Procrastination is the archenemy of crisis management. Sometimes a crisis becomes a crisis simply because someone has failed to act.

During my eight years at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), we handled 373 major disasters, including fifty-four tornadoes, forty-three floods, thirty-eight hurricanes, four earthquakes, and one terrorist bombing. One thing about having crisis as your job description, you get to see people at both their worst and their best — which is often at the same time. Watching so many ordinary humans deal with extraordinary circumstances, I alsoabsorbed a certain gut-level understanding of why some people are able to manage crisis —practically, emotionally, and spiritually — and others aren't. In a disaster, we tend to think in terms of groups — twenty thousand survivors in a shelter, for example. But that's twenty thousand individuals who look at the world through only their own eyes. Crisis management is at heart an individual challenge.

Shortly after President Clinton appointed me director of FEMA, somebody asked me what he had meant by saying I was "a man of uncommon common sense." The truth was, I didn't know how to answer. I admitted as much, and said I would think on it. And so I did.

What I came up with was this: In 1960, when I was sixteen years old, I bought my first car, a 1951 Ford that squawked rubber in all three gears. I gave $250 for it, money I had saved up from baling hay in Texas the summer before. I was very proud of that old car. It was sky blue with a flat-head V-8 and twin pipes, and in it I felt like the coolest boy in all of Dardanelle, Arkansas.

One night leaving the roller rink, just as I speed-shifted from first to second, the engine started making a terrible racket. I was a farmer, not a mechanic, but even I knew what that metal-on-metal sound meant: I had thrown a rod. The car was undriveable, so I got a buddy to hook a chain to my bumper and tow me home. We hauled the Ford down to the barn and parked it under the shed. My dad came out and looked at it. He hadn't been all that big on my buying a car in the first place.

"What you gonna do now?" he said.

"Well, Dad," I said, "I guess I'll fix it."

Now, I need to step back here and make a point, which is, when my car broke down, hiring somebody else to fix it was out of the question. I grew up the son of an Arkansas sharecropper. Until I was fifteen, we had no indoor plumbing and only a coal stove for heat. In the winter my dad would spread sheets of linoleum on the floor to block out the cold air, and to this day I can see that linoleum floating up whenever a harsh wind blew. As the youngest of five children, I started driving a tractor at age six, and I stayed home from school so much, helping Dad in the fields, that I almost flunked first grade. When I did go to school I carried my lunch in a lard bucket. My mother was a housekeeper, at first just for us and then for other people, too, and my brother, sisters, and I helped her as well. She had a garden where she grew all our vegetables, and she canned a lot of things to tide us over in the winter. We raised our own hogs and did our own butchering, milked our seventeen cows every morning, and raised chickens that we traded for the staples we needed, like flour, sugar, and salt. Mother made our clothes out of flour sacks, and I soon learned not to object whenever she asked me to go grocery shopping with her. That way, I at least got to choose the color of my next shirt.

I don't mean to make my early life sound unduly harsh. We were a close family, and we had plenty of good times. Still, by age sixteen, I had seen my father and mother survive not just the expected hardships of farm life, which included the usual drought-failed crops (one year my dad brought in a total of two bales of cotton) and sick animals (until I bought one, we didn't have a car — only a wagon and horses), but also the tornado that turned our house on its foundation when I was five, the fire that destroyed everything we had when I was fifteen, and the other tornado that we escaped only by running to a nearby storm shelter, my mother getting bitten by a snake on the way.

Despite all that, I had never torn apart an engine, but the next morning I set to work on it. I jacked the car up on blocks, took off the heads, took off the oil pan, took out the crank shaft, took out all the pistons and rods — everything till that engine block was clean as a whistle. Then I turned the crank shaft, turned the rods, put in new rod bearings, and put the whole engine back together. I still had a little coffee can full of bolts, but the car seemed to run fine. I never figured out what those extra bolts were for.

For years I didn't realize there was anything particularly remarkable about that event. But what I now see as remarkable is that I knew I could fix it. Having watched my parents fight their way through all the bad times, and having endured many dicey moments myself, I've come to believe that uncommon common sense is nothing more than a bone-deep faith in your ability to cope in a bad situation — faith that you can decide what to do, you can figure out how to do it, you can pick up the pieces of your life and go on. It's frightening the first time you have to tap into that confidence at your core. But the more you're tested, the more you can rely on your experience at tapping into it. You don't have to be afraid that it'll fail you. Whatever it is inside us that instills, facilitates, and conveys such confidence, the truth about it is this: It grows, like bark, with every trial you face.

Unfortunately, common sense is a commodity that seems to be in extremely short supply, especially in organizations. Leon Panetta, former congressman and White House chief of staff, says, "Democracy operates either through crisis or leadership." I think you could say the same for corporations, communities, and even families.

Groups don't think; they react. More than that, they fantasize, imagine, fear, fabricate, compete, compensate, placate, and supplicate. With their many arms and legs flailing wildly, they wrestle with illusions. When I joined FEMA, the agency itself was in crisis. Widely known as a do-nothing outfit — the government's "turkey farm" — it was actually in danger of being dismantled by Congress. Originally set up to guard against nuclear war, its most useful role was as a dumping ground for politics appointees. But shortsightedness always reveals itself. When Hurricane Hugo hit South Carolina in 1989, FEMA's response was so slow and cumbersome that Senator Ernest Hollings called the agency "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known." Unfortunately, that wasn't the agency's low point. That came in 1992, when Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida. FEMA was so inept in acting that people were still living in tent cities more than a year after the storm.

So to me, my task as director was clear: to slash red tape and redefine how the federal government responds to crises in its citizens' lives. But as I jumped into my job with both feet, I found I was having a hard time getting my people to open up — to me or to one another. Then one day an employee told me that when he would go to parties in Washington and people asked where he worked, he would mumble or slur his words — anything but to say "FEMA." That's when I realized that my first job was to boost this agency's morale.

I started wandering the halls, talking and listening to people and having regular brown-bag lunches with employees all over the building. Most of them had never seen a FEMA director before, much less sat around talking with one. Sometimes we didn't discuss anything but their families and the latest ball game, but that was okay. The main thing was for them to learn to trust me and their other colleagues — but mainly to trust themselves. People are so afraid to fail that they often shut down and do nothing. Failure is part of life. Try something, and if it doesn't work, try something else. I encourage imagination and discourage predictability. At first, whenever I would suggest something new, inevitably someone would pipe up with, "But we've never done it that way. . . ." I got so tired of hearing that that I had a sign made up for my desk. It says, "When entering this office, DO NOT SAY, 'WE'VE NEVER DONE IT THAT WAY BEFORE!' "

Once I felt the employees were on track, we started working to stream-line the agency's operations. Today I'm proud to report that in March 2000, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University published a study called Learning from the Leaders: Results-Based Management at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "FEMA has won widespread praise for its reinvention efforts," wrote the study's author, senior research fellow Jerry Ellig. "Lawmakers who once talked of abolishing the agency now compliment it."

Our road to success was strewn with obstacles. Unbelievable as it sounds, FEMA had never had a strategic plan. Its managers had never sat down to establish goals. So one of the first things we did was go away together and talk about what our purpose was and what we needed to do to fulfill that purpose. We simplified the paperwork so disaster victims can get help in days, not weeks or months, and by telephone instead of through the mail. We set up instant community relations programs for survivors. We all but eliminated our original focus on nuclear war and instead began focusing on the far likelier natural disasters.

Copyright © 2001 James Lee Witt and James Morgan

Meet the Author

A native of Arkansas, James Lee Witt served as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1993 until 2001. An international consultant and speaker, he lives in Washington, D.C.

James Morgan is author of the New York Times Notable Book The Distance to the Moon and co-author of Leading with My Heart, Virginia Kelley's bestselling memoir of raising Bill Clinton. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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