50 years ago this week, humanity stood on the brink of nuclear war. In what could easily be called the crisis incident with the highest stakes ever, the U.S. and Soviet Union narrowly avoided mutual annihilation.
It's often referred to as "13 days in October". 13 terrifying days.
Besides its history-changing implications, there are many parallels that can be drawn between how the Cuban missile crisis unfolded and modern-day corporate crisis management.
By the way, the remarkable image above from REUTERS shows one of the Soviet cruise missiles that was in Cuba, capable of delivering a 14-kiloton nuclear warhead.
Adaptation is key
President John F. Kennedy's defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, famously stated that "there is no longer such a thing as strategy; there is only crisis management."
Even in 1962, leaders were realizing that the ebb and flow of crisis situations, as well as the constant barrage of shifting information, meant that the days of plodding strategy were over. The crisis management "rule books" were of no use. During the missile crisis, facts were changing constantly and what leaders were certain of one hour might be disproved the next.
In today’s business climate things are even more intense, with feedback coming from a dizzying array of sources. Near-instant communication is expected, forcing ever-faster decision-making and the need to adapt quickly to change. Adapt quickly or die, as one saying goes.
Coping with bad information
I was startled to discover that the debates inside the White House (secretly tape-recorded by JFK) were often out of sync with events in the rest of the world. Much of what Kennedy thought he knew about Soviet actions and motivations during the crisis rested on flawed intelligence reports and assumptions.
This quote, from the Washington Post article "Cool Crisis Management? It's a Myth. Ask JFK." by Michael Dobbs, sheds light on a fact that’s been obscured by historians and the highly effective PR of JFK’s team. There was quite a bit of straight-out bad intelligence that came across the decision-maker’s table.
For example, President Kennedy was initially advised that the Soviet presence in Cuba involved just 6,000 to 8,000 "technicians." However, there were actually "43,000 heavily armed Soviet troops on Cuba, equipped with tactical nuclear weapons targeted at suspected U.S. beachheads".
The same is true for modern crises, where some of what you see and hear will be spot-on, some will be misleading, and some will be straight-out lies from the misinformed or malicious.
The ability to make the calls necessary to keep moving forward based on the murky details (often the only ones available at the early stages of a corporate crisis) is essential.
There’s always something…
Dobbs also took a look at another rarely-discussed incident of the missile crisis – the accidental intrusion into Soviet airspace by an American U-2 spy plane at the height of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear standoff:
Capt. Charles "Chuck" Maultsby was on a routine mission to keep an eye on Soviet nuclear tests when he took a wrong turn at the North Pole and ended up in Soviet airspace on the most dangerous day of the Cold War. When Kennedy learned that Maultsby's spy plane had gone missing over the Soviet Union on Black Saturday, his reaction was laconic: "There's always some @$%&!* who doesn't get the word."
For more than 90 minutes, people failed to notify the White House that the spy plane was over the Soviet Union, even though Soviet fighter jets had been sent to shoot down the plane and nuclear-armed U.S. jets were on their way.
Even with the best-laid plans or most well-protected business, the possibility for disruption exists. Human beings, machinery and technology are all fallible, and nothing sums that up better than Kennedy’s remark.
Whether it’s a traffic accident, lost package, or misdirected jet pilot, the smallest of missed communications or simple errors can throw a massive wrench in the gears of your operation.
Steering through the storm
Perhaps the following quote, from a Calgary Herald story on the missile crisis, sums it up best.
Even the wisest leaders are “not prepared” for situations in which things “careen out of control… when things turn up where they’re not supposed to be, when people get angry or exhausted and give you bad advice, when the intelligence is looking very sparse and even counter-intuitive… and everybody is making assumptions that are consistent with what they originally believed but are not open to the facts as they’re coming in.”
Fact is, when you’re thrust into the midst of a crisis, it's often extremely chaotic. It's difficult enough to deal with a purely internal incident, but when it involves the public, look out. You’re bound to have a barrage of data and inquiries from social media, not to mention your website and phones ringing off the hook with calls from concerned stakeholders and members of the media sniffing out a juicy story. Your employees are concerned, and possibly even panicking.
Nobody is truly "ready" for this. What we can do is prepare as best as possible with contingency plans and thorough crisis training. Then, in the midst of this storm, you’ve got to do your best to take in the big picture and make the decision that has the best likely outcome for all of your stakeholders.
It takes brains and guts to take command of a serious crisis, but pull it off and you could turn a frightening situation into the beginning of a new era, as President John F. Kennedy and his team did in 1962.