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January 25, 2010

News & Opinion: Being Prepared: It's not only for Boy Scouts

By: Sally Haldorson @ 6:04 AM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

In light of the earthquakes in Haiti, Learning from Catastrophes: Strategies for Reaction and Response, the new book edited by Howard Kunreuther and Michael Useem and published by Wharton School Publishing, has even more relevance. The authors, both chairpersons of the Council on the Mitigation of Natural Disasters, have gathered the writings of the world’s leading experts in risk management and disaster recovery to help council people and organizations on how best to predict, prepare and respond to natural and man-made disasters, from the devastation caused by earthquakes and tsunamis to the overwhelming challenges presented by terrorism and economic upheaval. In their introduction, the editors call these “low-probability but high-consequence events” and caution against the human tendency to dismiss preparation efforts due to “underprediction” or, more clearly, the belief that low risk equals no risk. After all, they explain, think how the devastation from Hurricane Katrina could have been reduced had the city of New Orleans invested in such things as improving their levees and buildings, or how the impact of the jumbled housing market could have been softened by some well-placed regulations.

But how do you plan for something you can’t imagine actually happening? Learning from Catastrophes offers ample advice to reduce and/or manage risk, loss, and recovery. Because the material is based on current events and all-too-relevant conundrums, the book is surprisingly readable despite its academic bent. For example, in a chapter that tries to answers the question: “Can Poor Countries Afford to Prepare for Low-Probability Risks?”, written by Michele McNabb of Freeplay Energy, and Kristine Pearson of Freeplay Foundation, I found it quite easy to apply the information to what I know of Haiti’s situation and it made the case more immediate.

The chapter titled, “A Financial Malignancy,” by Suzanne Nora Johnson, former Vice President of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., describes the causes of the current financial crisis as a cancer. Certainly many people had diagnosed a number of symptoms in the financial system, she writes, “[h]owever, no commentator actually understood how immunocompromised the entire global financial system had become, what the ultimate carcinogen would be, and when exactly it would metastasize.” In that chapter, and throughout all of the essays, the title of this book is well represented: it is imperative that we learn from crisis, and not play either a blame game or put our heads in the sand.

The sobering fact is that there are more disasters of all sorts on the horizon, not just those similar to what we have dealt with before, like weather events and economic depressions but other possible disasters that we have yet to really have to confront in modern times, such as a major pandemic. The H1N1 flu alert highlights just how able (or unable) we are able to respond globally to such a threat. Jiah-Shin Teh and Harvey Rubin’s manifesto on “Dealing with Pandemics: Global Security, Risk Analysis, and Science Policy” shows just how such biological events could affect every aspect of life.

But before you think that this entire book is filled with doomsday scenarios, it responds to all of these scenarios with methods of action and windows of opportunity. The writers here, while acknowledging the eternal truth that bad things happen, are more interested in showing just how we can think and act our way through them, emerging on the other side more knowledgeable and perhaps even safely. The concluding chapter, “Developing Leadership to Avert and Mitigate Disasters,” written by Michael Useem, author of Leadership Moment and other excellent leadership books, tells two stories that highlight just how good leadership can make a difference in preventing or surviving catastrophes. Useem encourages: “The art of leadership includes preparing for the unexpected, and the value of leadership thus becomes more important when the world becomes more unpredictable.”

All together, Kunreuther, Useem, and Wharton School Publishing have put together a fascinating, alarming, motivating and educational book that has instant applicability and a palpable urgency. While watching CNN or another news station relay the events and the aftermath of such disasters as the Haiti earthquakes or continuing job losses can give us a minute-by-minute look at what is happening in and to the world, also spend some time reading Learning from Catastrophes so perhaps in the future the devastation is not quite so significant or the stories so horrific.

About Sally Haldorson


Sally Haldorson's job as 800-CEO-READ’s General Manager is to make 800-CEO-READ a great place to work for our employees, and a consistently high-performing customer service organization for our clients, authors, and our partners in the publishing industry. In addition to her General Manager duties ensuring collaboration, integration, and quality, she reads, writes, reviews, curates, and edits for the company. Helping craft The 100 Best Business Books of All Time used parts of both skill sets. Outside of work, she is most likely to be found hitting a tennis ball around or hanging out with her boys (husband, child, dog) at home.