A Gorilla of a Crisis: Three Lessons for Managers After Harambe’s Death


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(Photo: Jeff McCurry/ Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden)

In February 2009, President Obama’s then-Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” The idea behind his comment apparently originated with the economist Paul Romer, who in November 2004 said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

My corollary is that “A crisis can be happen at any time.” And leaders must be prepared for crises, whenever they occur.

I wrote last week about when time is on your side, and when it is not. I didn’t think I’d have a clear, well-publicized example of when time is not on your side so soon after that post.

When a toddler fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo over Memorial Day weekend, the zoo leaders immediately had a crisis on their hands. It was a crisis in which time was not their friend—a human life was at stake. I don’t know who authorized the shot that killed the gorilla, but it was the right thing for the zoo personnel to do.

Of course it was sad—Harambe, a beautiful silverback gorilla in his prime, was acting like gorillas act. He was unintentionally providing the type of demonstration of gorillas’ strength that zoo visitors wanted to see (although none of them expected to see a child harmed). He didn’t deserve to die.

But the zoo personnel had no choice. There was no time to soothe the gorilla, who was banging the little boy about in a concrete-lined pool. There was no time to argue about how the boy got into the gorilla enclosure, or whether the fences were adequate. A human life was at risk, and the most certain way of eliminating the risk was to shoot the gorilla with a kill shot. Good crisis managers can make that call in an instant.

This incident offers three lessons for leaders of any institution, in my opinion:

1. Articulate and discuss in advance your principles for decision-making.

I’ve done some work with an institution that works with animals and the public, similar to the Cincinnati Zoo. That institution made it clear in their policy manual, given to all employees, that human life came first. The animals’ care and comfort were of primary importance, more so than offering the public the show they wanted, but human life and health were paramount to all other concerns.

Under the structure that this institution set out for its employees, the Cincinnati Zoo made the only call possible.

2. Don’t be dissuaded by public opinion; hold firm to your principles.

The Cincinnati Zoo has incurred a lot of wrath for killing Harambe. The negative publicity may have started with PETA, but many others have also spoken against killing the gorilla, which, as noted above, did nothing wrong. The Cincinnati Zoo has appropriately defended itself, explaining why it took the action it did in unapologetic terms.

When you and your employees did what you were supposed to do, explain yourself directly and undefensively. This is one reason to have your policies and principles articulated in advance. If you’re prepared, you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable with your explanation. The time to hash through your principles is before a crisis, not during.

3. Take the time to learn from each crisis.

After every crisis or near-crisis in which your principles are tested, it’s important to consider again whether any of your policies or procedures (or even principles) should change. No one is infallible, and we should refine and adapt as time passes and we face more complicated and nuanced situations. I am sure the Cincinnati Zoo has (or will soon) conduct some type of after-action review.

Other institutions can and should also learn from the incident involving poor Harambe. Where do your values conflict, and how will you prioritize them?

I’ve written this post from the point of view of institutional leaders. But it applies to us as individuals as well. Each of us has our own personal beliefs and values. How do you articulate them? How do you rank them? What do you do when they conflict? You should have some idea in advance, so that you do not dither when time is not on your side.

What would you add regarding the importance of being prepared for a crisis?

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