Are We Complacent About the Financial Crisis?

So now, with the economy, we wait, and anticipate.

We fill our time by speculating: Is this economy like the Great Depression? Is the bailout going to fail? And by finger pointing: Poor risk management is to blame. The marketing of the American Dream is to blame. And by worrying: We can't help but worry. It's how our brains work.

When you put it all together, it might seem like the financial crisis has created, what leadership and change guru John Kotter calls "a sense of urgency."

ut Kotter doesn't think so. In fact, he believes there's an "astonishing lack of urgency." We're actually complacent about this crisis.

Kotter makes a good case that what we call urgency is actually just frenzy. And frenzy is what we do when we we're more motivated to talk about problems than we are to fix problems. "I do see people nearly running down the halls," Kotter writes. "But they seem to be running in circles. Power-point presentations are expanding fast. Those meetings are achieving...what? This isn't a powerful sense of urgency to move quickly and intelligently to deal with a difficult situation. I'm not sure what it is. A false urgency?"

Kotter's depiction of false urgency reminded me of a story I wrote about the Coast Guard.The Coast Guard is often credited with having a real sense of urgency. Indeed, the nature of the Coast Guard's job--saving a wayward sailor, airlifting hurricane victims from flooded homes, drug interdiction--makes it a leadership crucible.

What you learn about leadership from watching the Coast Guard do its job is that a real sense of urgency often seems measured, decisive and controlled. Calm, even. "God bless the Coast Guard," said one Congressman after the outfit's heroic response to 9/11.

With Katrina, there was false urgnecy, frenzy even, until "Brownie" got out of the way and the Coast Guard took over. Watch Spike Lee's documentary "When the Levees Broke" and again you'll witness the USCG's urgent, effective leadership.

I interviewed Admiral Thad Allen, the ground commander in New Orleans post-Katrina. "The scope and the complexity of the job here was more than we've seen in a long, long time," he said. "As I've said, transparency of information breeds self-correcting behavior."

Too bad the Coast Guard can't manage the bailout.

By Scott Berinato  |  October 29, 2008; 12:17 PM ET  | Category:  Economy Watch
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