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

by James Lee Witt

Published by Times Books October 2002; $25.00US/$36.95CAN; 0-8050-7000-1 (Buy this book at Amazon.com for 30% OFF)

From the former director of FEMA, how to prepare for challenge, change, and potential disaster

The Wall Street Journal called James Lee Witt the "master of disaster." As the head of FEMA, Witt pioneered a new way of handling crisis and rebuilt America's emergency response system. Instead of waiting for a disaster to hit and cleaning up in its wake, he sought ways to manage a crisis before and during, as well as after, it happens. Heralded by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Business school for its remarkable results, his approach identifies four windows of opportunity for getting a crisis under control -- preparation, prevention, response, and recovery -- and the demands facing leaders and teams at each stage.

Now, in Stronger in the Broken Places, Witt distills his decades of experience to nine essential lessons. This is the wisdom that has pulled communities and crisis teams through tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, bombings, and floods, and can guide individuals and businesses in any industry as they operate in our crisis-filled times.

1. Find Your Roots: Know your organization's values and prepare a triage plan based on them.

2. Market the Storm: Set up effective communication and early-warning systems.

3. A River's Gonna Go Where a River's Gonna Go: Identify a recurring crisis and assess the repercussions of walking away.

4. Reconsider the Three Pigs: Change your priorities and projects without triggering a crisis.

5. Twine Is Stronger than String: Identify synergies with suppliers, clients, stakeholders, and partners also hit by crisis.

6. Treat the Heart without Losing Your Head: Keep your team confident and productive when things are going wrong.

7. Tear Down the Stovepipes: Build emergency teams with customized reporting lines and goals

8. A Lightning Rod Works Both Ways: Find new people who can share leadership duties with you.

9. Stronger in the Broken Places: Collect knowledge about failures and success so you can refine your crisis plans for the future.

To bring the lessons home, Witt shares examples from big and small corporations such as Malden Mills, Swissair, Kmart, Sybase, Lehman Brothers, MBA Polymers, Marriott, Applied Materials, and Polly's Gourmet Coffee. He shows how these companies have overcome crises by applying the nine lessons to their businesses, whether they're responding to a downturn in the economy, a bad earnings announcement, a chemical spill at a plant, the loss of the company's biggest account, or a big new competitor.

Stronger in the Broken Places will inspire leaders at all levels to step forward, help them manage extraordinary pressures, and give them practical tools for triumphing over adversity.

Author A native of Arkansas, James Lee Witt served as the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1993 until 2001, during which time he transformed FEMA into a customer-focused model for crisis management. An international consultant and motivational speaker, he divides his time between Arkansas and Washington, D.C.

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

Reviews "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." --The Wall Street Journal

Excerpt The following is an excerpt from the book Stronger in the Broken Places by James Lee Witt Published by Times Books; October 2002; $25.00US/$36.95CAN; 0-8050-7000-1 Copyright 2004 James Lee Witt and James Morgan



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 also absorbed 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 2004 James Lee Witt and James Morgan