Crisis Management: Moment of Zen


It’s nearly three in the morning and we’re in the Joint Operations Center (“The JOC”) established by our Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to oversee Occupy Philly’s official “decampment.”  The past 12 hours have been intense— the possibility of violence, the coordination of peacefully relocating hundreds of people has spiked stress levels and the long hours have led to fatigue. The Occupy Philly Movement, lasting over ten months including a 55 day encampment at City Hall, seems to finally be coming to a close. The CNN images of violent confrontations in other cities has all of us on edge. We need to avoid that in Philadelphia, where we cherish Constitutional rights and where Free Speech began. We have been planning for nearly a month, trying to strike the right balance between our citizen’s First Amendment rights and their public safety and well being. Now we are taking action but sincerely working to make sure no one gets hurt, that violence is avoided and that no single individual creates a series of events that leads to unintended consequences. The next few moments will be crucial to the success of the operation. Things are tense.

Suddenly, the phone rings. It’s a member of the S.W.A.T. team. He is calling from Occupy’s recently decamped site. Everyone’s heads perk up. Everything stops. What’s happened? Is anyone hurt?

No. The officer called to inform us (with an earnest and typical professionalism) that a small pet turtle was left behind at one of the tents and the police didn’t know what to do with it. Yes, a PET TURTLE! The tension broken, we all look at each other and have a good laugh. There it was—our moment of zen.

A lot can be said about crisis management and how to lead in tense situations. If your leader and team are well prepared and have developed the trust you need to rely on each other in times of need, you will be ready for anything. One of the most important take-a-ways I’ve learned is to find a way to stay grounded, focused—and yes, even to find the humor at times.

Good crisis management means being calm in your decision-making despite hectic circumstances. You take a beat, you gather all facts and you lead.  You find your “Moment of Zen.”  That moment when you have prepared, acted and can rest assured that you have done everything you can do.  You may not be able to control the circumstances of a crisis, but you can control how you face the challenge—how you respond.

The City of Philadelphia is excellent at crisis management. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this through many crisis situations that often befall a large metropolitan city. Crisis such as: line of duty deaths, violent storms, floods, fires, accidents, protests, hurricanes and even earthquakes.  We are often at our best when the situation is at its worst. The Mayor is the personal embodiment of this approach. Always leading with a calm and clear head.  His leadership has a lot to do with the way the City approaches difficult situations.


On my second day as Managing Director, Philadelphia saw a fatal tugboat accident on the Delaware River. As soon as it happened, Everett Gillison (the Mayor’s Chief of Staff and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety) and I arrived on the scene and were briefed by our first responders. Mayor Nutter arrived shortly after and the three of us stayed until the situation stabilized. We learned all the facts we could, comforted survivors, made arrangements for them and their families, addressed the media and began planning how to honor the tragically lost. Standing on the docks that day taught me about why presence is important in a time of crisis. The tugboat crash presented a dark, complex situation that could only be truly comprehended if you were there.

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That’s why leaders need to be on the ground, fighting alongside their troops during a crisis. You can’t lead from a bunker; you can’t rely on phone calls or the media to describe a situation. You must experience a crisis firsthand if you want to make effective, informed decisions.  You must lead from the front.


Another piece of being present is surrounding yourself with the right people.  Bringing your best and brightest subject matter experts to the table as a team will help you communicate and make quick high quality decisions.  Each team member demonstrating the right behaviors essential to their role.  The Mayor has done an exceptional job putting a great emergency team together in Philadelphia.  From Police Commissioner, Charles Ramsey, Fire Commissioner, Lloyd Ayers to OEM Director, Samantha Phillips, to Chief of Staff, Everett Gillison, to Public Safety Director, Michael Resnick, to Jazelle Jones & our entire City team—Philly’s crisis team is top notch.

However, perhaps the most important component to good crisis management is not behaviors but a mindset—a mindset the City is lucky to have.  In his classic management book Good to Great, Jim Collins tells the story of Admiral Stockdale, who was captured and tortured over an eight-year imprisonment during the Vietnam War. Stockdale survived the eight-years while many of his colleagues did not. When asked, “Who didn’t make it out?” Stockdale replied, “The optimists” which led him to explain, “You must never confuse the faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

With this advice, Collins coined the “Stockdale Paradox” which states that in order to succeed in adverse situations, you must: retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties AND, at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current realities, whatever they might be.

The City’s leaders adhere to the Stockdale Paradox through every crisis, confident that we can prevail without ignoring the hard, uncomfortable facts of the situation. This frame of mind helps us make well-informed, balanced decisions without succumbing to panic or blind, unfounded optimism and wishful thinking.

Whether in the public or private sector, odds are that at some time in your leadership career you will be faced with an urgent crisis.  Careful advance planning, leading from the front, along with the right team and tone will ensure the level of calmness and confidence necessary to successfully get you through. Do those things right and you might even enjoy a light moment in the midst of the crisis.

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So when that S.W.A.T. member hand-delivered the turtle to the Office of Emergency Management at the JOC, everyone around the table laughed.  With a smile, my former Chief of Staff, Brian Abernathy (in charge of Animal Control at the time) stepped up and officially took possession of the turtle on behalf of the City of Philadelphia.  Brian kept it through the night until he could safely get it to an animal shelter in the morning. After a tense but successful night, I was grateful to that little turtle for what Jon Stewart might call—our Moment of Zen.

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Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.





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