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Adaptive Leadership in Times of Crisis
World Economic Forum Cologny Switzerland
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Nothing throws leadership into starker relief than a crisis, as Hurricane Katrina and the Great East Japan earthquake both demonstrated. Now more than ever, the ripple effects from a crisis spread far beyond its epicenter, often in unexpected ways. At the same time, faith in authority has eroded trust in the U.S. Federal Governments ability to handle domestic problems, for example, has been declining for the past decade.1 Add the challenge of managing digital media and its rapid information cycle, and leaders have but minutes to disseminate mitigation strategies. However, by examining the response to past catastrophes, lessons can begleaned on how leadership must be transformed to raise collective resilience to todays complex and interconnected risks. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina was a disaster of epic proportions, killing 1,833 people and affecting 500,000 livelihoods2 and, according to census data, causing a 29-percent dip in the population of New Orleans.3 In March 2011, the Great East Japan earthquake took the lives of nearly 20,000 people and ruined the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands. But in addition to the devastating human loss of such tragedies, unanticipated repercussions were felt around the globe. Leaders in London were surprised when the hurricane in the United States caused gas prices to spike in the United Kingdom, and few imagined that a disaster in Japan would shut down a car manufacturing plant in Detroit or trigger dramatic changes in nuclear energy policy in Europe. In a national context, the two incidents were adaptive challenges. Ronald Heifetz, thefounder of Harvards Center for Public Leadership, makes the distinction between technical and adaptive challenges. The former pertains to problems where solutions are already known. Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are those for which new solutions must be invented.
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