The biggest challenges local government professionals will face are those they didn’t anticipate. These trying times arise from the chaos that ensues when something goes precipitously wrong.
“Each one of your communities is a police shooting away from a riot. Each of your communities is an active shooter at school from shredding the fabric of everything you thought held your community together,” said Team Rubicon CEO and co-founder Jake Wood at the 2019 International City/County Management Association conference.
Wood is no stranger to chaos. He experienced it on the football field as a college player, then in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine and scout sniper. At a loss for what to do after he left the service, he contemplated getting his MBA. Then an earthquake struck Haiti, and he marshalled fellow veterans to apply what they knew to the effort to serve. That was in 2010; Team Rubicon has grown from an initial group of eight people to more than 100,000 volunteers.
Local government professionals may never face sniper fire or improvised explosive devices as Wood did in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they confront situations where the principles Team Rubicon has developed can help them serve most effectively.
They face situations such as:
- Hurricane Harvey, which hit southeast Texas in 2017
- The water main break in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in July that threatened to keep residents from getting water for 24 to 36 hours
- A ransomware attack in Texas in August 2019 that interfered with 23 local governments
Here are the three broad components Wood emphasized for coping with chaos:
Wood’s approach to preparation goes back to his football days. In his book, “Taking Command,” Wood discusses the “Eye of God,” a huge camera system that captured each moment of each practice.
“We can’t possibly watch and review every drill,” thought Wood. He learned that the coaching staff wasn’t kidding, “sometimes rewinding a single play more than 30 times to review the actions of each of … five linemen.”
What if local government professionals took such a meticulous approach and held each other accountable, Wood asks.
Your initial hiring process lays the groundwork for effective preparation, Wood says. Rather than hiring for pedigree, look for people who have endured hardship and build a culture “that guides decisions in the absence of borders.”
When a crisis strikes, your reaction sets the tone for those around you and for your community. Panic is contagious, notes Wood. Don’t believe military movie stereotypes that show frenetic radio operators screaming “incoming” and freaking out, he says. That’s not how the military works, and that’s not how effective local government professionals respond when a precipitous issue strikes.
Wood asked the assembled professionals, “How many of you ever had a plan that you take it off the shelf and it works?” Situations will arise for which there is no plan. Will you as a local professional be tempted to “sit back in your swivel chair and open up PowerPoint to make a plan”?
This is the time to get out of the chair and head toward the chaos. “No good plan was ever designed in a swivel chair.” No matter how much your instincts are fighting you, get up and put yourself into the midst of the situation.
“Only in that moment in that environment will you be able to come up with a solution to the problem that is facing your organization or your community,” says Wood.
Team Rubicon prides itself on having a “bias for action.” It is so easy for a local government to get bound up in rules and procedures. There’s a place for rules and procedures, of course, but Team Rubicon’s “rules are for peacetime” concept applies at times of crisis.
As this graphic shows, “swivel-chair” leadership takes a long time and wastes effort in all the wrong places. “By the time those decisions reach the people who are going to take action, the circumstance has changed,” says Wood.
On the other hand, leadership that is based on preparation, accountability and bias toward action is “able to overcome obstacles more quickly, more efficiently, with more innovation.”
For the first three weeks Wood was his sniper team’s point person, he was tentative, he notes. “I hadn’t come to terms with what was at stake.”
Whether your issue as a local government professional is a natural disaster, a mass shooting or a cyberattack, it’s up to you to recognize what is at stake, get out of the swivel chair and be the leader your community needs.
The International City/County Management Association has published a special report on Leadership Before, During and After a Crisis that helps local government professionals navigate crises.
In addition, the free ICMA SmartBrief, one of more than 200 industry-focused newsletters, provides information relevant to city and county managers every weekday.
Paula Kiger edits SmartBrief’s nonprofit sector newsletters, including ICMA SmartBrief, and co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. She worked extensively in Florida’s quasi-governmental children’s health insurance program that became a national model, has served as a United Nations Foundation Shot at Life Champion leader, has proofread professionally and has extensive social media experience. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and on Twitter.