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For Want of a Nail – Uvalde

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
for want of a horse the knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

Old English saying

The mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, has been the proverbial grain of sand that, in falling, has caused an avalanche of action toward making our schools safer. The media coverage has focused on guns and the police response. In the following, I’ll use the old saw above to provide a slightly different framing of what happened. There are aspects of this sad incident that have broader implications and applications in our communities.

In what follows, I’m using the publicly available information as of this date. Some details may later be found inaccurate, but the big picture is unlikely to change. The interpretation of the events and their context are mine.

Nails (linchpins and keys)

Several organizations work together to provide security to the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District. The District has its own seven-person police force, whose officers play a similar role to School Resource Officers. The Chief is also the communications linchpin* between the school district and the Uvalde Police Department, and with the Uvalde County Sheriff’s Department. He is expected to facilitate communications among these organizations so that actions are properly coordinated.

The District’s police department had participated in joint active shooter training exercises with other law enforcement organizations in August, 2020. In March of this year, the District itself hosted a similar joint training exercise for local law enforcement agencies. However, it appears that teachers and staff have not had similar “live” training.

The District has software for monitoring students’ social media accounts and for visitor control. The district also has several security policies and procedures, as well as physical protective measures: fences to limit access to school grounds and doors that can be locked to prevent access to classrooms. District procedure is for classroom teachers to keep their classroom doors locked.

Robb Elementary (now closed permanently) had a chain link fence to limit access and entrance doors that automatically lock when closed. The doors to the classrooms could be locked from the inside; School District security policy states that teachers are to keep them locked. The classroom doors had a steel jamb intended to prevent an outsider from breaking into a classroom. None of the local law enforcement agencies had master keys to open the doors.

Knights and Battle

The shooter, once he turned 18, purchased two AR-15s from a legitimate gun dealer, and over 1600 rounds of ammunition – some in stores and some on-line. On the day of the incident he posted his intent to shoot his grandmother on Facebook. He then shot her about 30 minutes before the carnage at the school began. Though severely injured, the grandmother called 9-1-1; it’s unclear whether she knew of his intent to go to the school.

The shooter then took his grandmother’s car and drove toward the school. He crashed into a ditch and shot at two witnesses coming out of a nearby funeral home. He then apparently scrambled over the chain link fence into the school’s parking lot. At the school, one of the teachers had propped open one of the auto-lock doors with a rock. While closing the door, the teacher saw the shooter crash his car, and start shooting. The teacher then called 9-1-1 reporting that a man with a gun was in the school’s parking lot. Ironically, a patrolling Uvalde police officer heard the 9-1-1 call and pursued a person he thought was the shooter. Unfortunately he was mistaken – he had driven past the shooter.

When the teacher closed the outside door, its lock did not engage, allowing the shooter to enter the building. Shortly thereafter, seven police officers entered the same way, and took gunfire from the shooter. Two of the officers were wounded. The shooter also fired ~100 rounds into a classroom, immediately killing a teacher and several children.

The shooter then closed the door to the classroom, and locked it. The shooter fired a few shots at the door and through the walls of the locked classroom, and then more or less went silent. The School District police chief concluded that the situation had changed and had become a barricaded shooter with hostages incident, and calls were made for tactical equipment to breach the doors.

It is important to note that the School District police chief did not consider himself the Incident Commander. He considered himself to be a first responder and had left his radio and protective vest in his car so that he could move more rapidly. However, as the first police chief on the scene, others expected him to play that role.

Some of the police officers set up a perimeter around the school. Parents had been notified via social media, and asked to go to another location to be reunited with their children. Unfortunately, many parents went directly to the school to retrieve their children. The police officers at the perimeter did everything they could to keep the parents away from the building.

Almost immediately after the shooter locked the door to the classroom, a search for a key began. A rather futile search – apparently a janitor had several key rings with keys but they were unlabeled. No one knew which might be the master. The School District police chief thus had to try each on the door to a classroom across the hall until he found the right one. As a result, police officers were not able to enter the classroom until almost 80 minutes after the gunman entered school grounds.

In the meantime, children in the classroom had managed to call 9-1-1 at least five times, detailing the carnage and asking for help. Since the School District police chief did not have his radio, he knew nothing of these calls.

Kingdom lost, and lessons to be learned

Once the right key was found, a tactical team entered the classroom and killed the shooter. Nineteen elementary school children and two teachers ultimately died. One of the teachers and, perhaps, some of the children who died could have been saved had the police taken down the shooter sooner.

I do not want to second guess the police – I’m not qualified to do that. But there are some clear (and not so clear) lessons that emerge to me as I dig into what happened.

School District police should have had a master key. This likely would have saved the lives of some of those (e.g., one of the teachers who died in an ambulance after the shooter was killed) who were shot but not killed outright. Many school districts ensure that their resource officers or local law enforcement have keys. More generally, schools and other public buildings need to make sure that police and fire and other emergency responders have ready access to their facilities. In particular, it’s good practice to have police and fire personnel do walk-throughs of public buildings. They can point out potential vulnerabilities, and be able to more rapidly and accurately respond to emergency situations. This applies to any building where the public may congregate and which provide a tempting target: schools, libraries, hospitals, government buildings, hotels and event venues. This is a lesson that incidents such as the terrorist attacks on hotels in Mumbai should have hammered home.

It’s laudable that local law enforcement had had an active shooter training exercise in the school just two months before the incident. Clearly though, the exercise did not simulate the actual events that occurred; for example, the shooter locking himself in the classroom. Further, teachers and staff weren’t involved in that training. Teachers – and school librarians, and others in direct contact with large numbers of students at any one time – are truly first responders in these situations. Their instinctive reactions can be crucially important in saving lives. The teacher’s action in propping open the door the shooter entered through was probably wrong; her calls to alert police were certainly correct. Both were instinctive; training hones the instincts and builds mental muscle to make the correct response.

Students also need to have some training – we hold fire drills (we do, don’t we?) and we should provide some age-appropriate instruction for active shooter incidents, as well. For example, very young children need to see policemen in tactical gear – and firemen in firefighting equipment – so that they understand that these aren’t monsters coming after them, but rather potential saviors.

The police have been severely criticized for their efforts to keep parents away from the school. This Monday-morning-quarterbacking is wrong! The social media messaging from the school specifically asked parents not to come to the school because it would potentially put them in danger and hamper the police.

The decision to treat the incident as a “barricaded subject” event once the police realized they didn’t have ready access to the classrooms may have been theoretically incorrect but, in the circumstances, it matched the situation on the ground as they knew it.

The School District police chief has deservedly received a great deal of criticism. As the situation unfolded, he had two overlapping roles to play – Incident Commander and linchpin for communications among all of the law enforcement agencies involved. From his own remarks, it is clear that he did not recognize that, as the first police commander on the scene, he became the Incident Commander. Coordination at the scene devolved into whispered conversations, attempts to negotiate with the shooter, and a shambling scramble to find a key. The School District police chief’s split-second decision to leave his radios in his car meant that he could not act as the linchpin either: he could not be informed that there were still children alive in the classrooms. Had he known this, the decision to treat the event as a “barricaded subject” situation might have been changed.

More generally, we too often ignore how important linchpins are in our communities, especially in crises. They may not be leaders (as the School District police chief was supposed to be here), but they are always the key connectors that hold our communities together. 9-1-1 operators, the complaint departments for our road and water systems are important – and often overlooked – parts of what we call our community’s social capital. By explicitly recognizing them and their importance, we can strengthen our communities. And by recognizing a lack of linchpins, and filling those gaps, we can help community leaders make better decisions. In this event, one man – flawed as all of us are flawed – didn’t understand his role. Tragically, his misunderstanding may have cost lives.


In the coming months, I intend to do a deeper dive into “social capital.” Within the research community terms like “social capital” and “bonding, bridging and linking” are too often glibly tossed around. Some researchers massage a mixture of measures with statistics, trying to torture out whether one community has more social capital than another. Lost in this effort is a simple truth: a community’s social capital is all about people and their connections to one another. The statistics mask the trust or distrust, the respect or disrespect, and the laughter and the tears that mark all connections between real people. I firmly believe that building a community’s social capital must be rooted in this simple truth, and want to explore this further with you.


*In systems science, linchpin connections are what social scientists call bridging or linking social capital. These are simply boundary-spanning connections from one system – here the School District’s police department, to other systems – the other law enforcement organizations involved. The linchpin in this context is the member of the School District’s police department who is connected to the other law enforcement agencies. If we think of communities as small worlds, then linchpins are crucial elements for rapid and accurate communications.

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Defining Victory

To a man without a map all paths look the same.

Loose translation of an African proverb

A recent column in my local newspaper really resonated with me. The author discussed several lessons from the Viet Nam War. Since my service there, I have thought much on what we should have learned from that experience. Thus, I was disappointed that the writer didn’t cite what I believe was the war’s most important lesson: you need a clear picture of what Victory looks like. Without that anchor, policies are like a boat beating on a dock, doing little good and damaging both the dock and the boat. In Viet Nam, this resulted in way too many “We have to destroy this village in order to save it”s in a war that ultimately ended in failure.

One of my Beloved’s favorite jabs at the Bush Administration is that they didn’t have an exit strategy for Iraq – and she’s right. What started out as taking down Saddam Hussein (and looking for weapons of mass destruction we never could find!) evolved into a complicated mess involving nation-building and terrorist-hunting. In other words, we never seemed to have a clear picture of what we were trying to achieve, so we never got out until we just basically said, “To Hell with it! We’re leaving.”

In my User’s Guide to Expert Advice, I pointed out that clearly describing Victory is a prerequisite for success for community leaders. In one of my examples, I contrasted the US and Swedish approaches to dealing with the pandemic. The US approach to the pandemic has been to “flatten the curve,” i.e., victory was [sort of] defined as no Covid-19 deaths due to lack of appropriate medical care. The Swedish approach has been much more “Whole of Society” – balancing protection of the most vulnerable with maintaining an acceptable quality of life. We had the same dichotomy of approach among the US states. In general, the red states strove to limit the impacts of the virus on everyday life, while protecting the most vulnerable. Conversely, the blue states imposed strict lockdown and masking measures for much longer to prevent the spread of the disease (In fact, cities in some blue states are actually re-imposing masking requirements.).

In today’s inbox I received the results of a study (by the National Bureau of Economic Research) looking at each state’s overall performance during the pandemic. The authors looked at each state’s excess mortality, economic performance, and educational impacts. The states that took draconian actions to prevent infections did somewhat better in fighting the pandemic’s infectiousness than the others. On the other hand, those states’ economies took bigger hits and have taken longer to recover – some still have not. The biggest difference was in educational performance – kids in states that kept them out of school longer fell further behind academically and had more negative mental health incidents (and more suicides!) than their peers in more open states.

This echoes the results of international studies with similar findings. We now have a lot of data indicating that defining victory holistically leads to better overall outcomes than a single focus on just one aspect of life.

Going to the community level, several major US cities defined victory as defunding the police. They succeeded. But what did they achieve? Spikes in crime, officers’ resignations, loss of economic activity. In this case, “Victory” [=defunding the police] was easy to achieve but the cost to these cities is already outrageously high and getting worse. For example, just today it was reported that Seattle is not able to investigate sexual assaults because there are not enough police officers to do so. Rapes can be reported via an automated messaging system, but nothing happens with these reports. Experience indicates that single women and families will begin to flee the city in increasing numbers, further hollowing out its economy and making it less and less attractive for tourists.

To me, defining victory can be a cornerstone of community resilience, if done properly. We unfortunately don’t pay enough attention to it – it’s that “vision thing” we tend to ignore. So let me offer a few simple guidelines for community leaders.

• While Victory may not be measurable, it has to be clearly defined. Not only you as community leaders must understand what victory looks like, but its description has to be clear and understandable for everyone who cares about the community. Otherwise, it is unlikely that any progress toward it can be sustained.

• Victory has to enhance the quality of life in the community – for everybody. Doing something to help one group at the expense of another will ultimately help neither (see Seattle’s example). This implies that Victory needs to be thought of in a “Whole of Community” manner. Community leaders should ask, “Will the entire community be better off if we reach this destination?” If the answer is no, the community leaders need to regroup.

• Since Victory is a destination – an endstate – there needs to be a realistic path to get there. A rural community generally doesn’t have the resources to implement “big city” programs for health or economic development. So setting up the goals of those programs as the target for community policies simply isn’t realistic. In other words, no path = no victory.

• Although it’s not a formal part of their qualifications, the community expects its leaders to implicitly obey the first tenet of the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. If Victory entails great sacrifices or harm greater than its benefits, or is perceived as such, then community leaders need to go back to the drawing board.

Above all, community leaders need to recognize that defining Victory in essence draws a roadmap for the community to follow toward its Future. It points to a destination and sets a path toward it. Thus, the brief guidelines I’ve drawn above can be summarized as:

  • If you can’t clearly describe the end-state you’re aiming for, don’t start down the path until you’re sure you’ll know it when you get there.
  • If the end-state isn’t good for the entire community, you need to rethink it.
  • If reaching Victory means needless suffering, then you need to rethink the path – and maybe the endstate.
  • And, finally, be damned sure to do no harm to any member of the community.

Without that roadmap, all paths will look the same, and almost all will lead nowhere.

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Trust

We need to trust in order to make any decision.

The Risk Monger

Trust has been the most critical casualty in the Western world’s culture wars. We sense its loss in things big and small in our daily lives. We see the suspicious and disapproving looks of the masked at the unmasked in our supermarkets. We hear the shouting parents at school board meetings who no longer trust their schools to educate their children. We can almost taste the mutual disdain and dehumanization of the Right and Left, driven by a lack of trust. And we recognize that this same lack of trust is preventing too many of our communities from taking the decisive actions needed to improve their quality of life.

When confronted with a problem or an opportunity, without trust different parts of the community may see things very differently. Action won’t be taken in a timely manner. Bounded rationality will abound.

But while we viscerally feel the loss of trust that the pundits (Oracles of the Obvious!) loudly proclaim, we wish that they would show us – or at least give us some hint – how to rebuild that foundation of community action. In this post, I look at the nature of trust and uncover clues to building it.* I’m going to put this in terms of what we should – and shouldn’t – do. After all, if we want to be trusted, we have to be trustworthy.

One of the key facets of trust is consistency. As someone put it (I can’t find the source):

I do not trust words. I even question actions. But I never doubt patterns.

Unknown

Thus, to be trustworthy, I need to be consistent, even predictable. One of the best compliments (at least I took it as one!) I ever received was from a consultant I had just let go. “John, you know how to make a deal – and keep it.”

Another important facet of trust is familiarity. If you don’t know me, you have no reason to trust me. You may not distrust me (= trusting me to do something you won’t like), but you are unlikely to even listen to a voice never heard before. Thus, to be trusted by someone, I have to establish a connection with that person.

If a connection is going to engender trust, it has to be based on respect. I have to respect your opinions, even if I don’t agree with them. Not only do I have to listen to you, but I have to try to understand where you’re coming from. April Lawson’s Braver Angels Debate approach (There’s a link at the end of this post.) has value precisely because she tries to have participants really listen to each other. One of the reasons the CDC is so distrusted is that they disrespected the legitimate concerns of so many: they haven’t listened. “Big Brother Says So” may work for some, but in the face of uncertain science it’s not the way to build trust.

Bernd Numberger (see link at the end of the post) provides some interesting thoughts about how to build (or destroy) trust. With apologies to him, I’ll paraphrase some of them, and add to them:

Trust builders
• Collaboration. Actions speak louder than words. Working together is an excellent way to build trust, especially in the community context. Find small problems where there is broad agreement, and get warring factions to work together toward solutions. Enough of these, and trust can follow.
• Shared success and celebrations. Or, as I like to say – never underestimate the power of a party! Celebrating small successes along the way builds trust, and can lead to much greater success.
• Openness. We have to be willing to let others know who we are in a personal sense, what we value and what we believe. This can be hard to do in the face of “woke” cancel culture (especially on college campuses) but it is a form of public duty.
• Sharing. We have to share in conversations – that means we have to listen – really pay attention to what others are saying – as well as speak. We have to show that we respect the opinions of others. We have to show that we value their opinions as well – perhaps not so much for their content, but certainly for others’ willingness to be open with us. This echoes several of the thoughts above.
• “Trusted” opinions. Recommendations from trusted third parties, meaningful awards, or certifications can help build others’ trust in us. But don’t cherry-pick your sources – where there are honest differences in data sources or interpretations, admit them.

Trust breakers
• Playing the blame game. Can you ever really trust someone who always blames others when things aren’t going right? Or is always making excuses (Certain politicians come to mind?), and never takes responsibility?
• Shooting from the lip. It’s hard to trust someone who seems to always be jumping to conclusions without checking their facts.
• Sending mixed signals. It’s also hard to trust that a reed that bends to whichever way the wind is blowing will stand firm for you (Certain other politicians come to mind?).
• Not caring about others’ concerns. Would you trust someone to do something that you value if he/she is only concerned about what’s good for him/her?

All of this implies that building trust is a contact sport, and it takes time and effort. Above all, it requires that each of us is trustworthy. Trust is the glue that binds communities together; lack of trust cements barriers in place that can block community action. Trust is essential for community resilience, and for Future-Fit communities.


*I’m basing this on three sources as well as my own experience.

Bernd Numberger:
http://cocreatr.typepad.com/everyone_is_a_beginner_or/2012/02/community-of-practice-and-trust-building.html

A recent post by the Risk Monger:
https://risk-monger.com/2021/11/16/trustbusters-part-1-precaution-and-the-demise-of-trust/

An article by April Lawson (tip of the hat to Bill Hooke who highlighted this article on New Year’s Day):
https://comment.org/building-trust-across-the-political-divide/

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Effective leadership

The undeserved hype around Cuomo reflects the dangerous way in which style has triumphed over substance in politics. It also reflects the way in which, when it comes to leadership, we reward charisma and confidence over competence. … I do hope that if we’ve learned one leadership lesson from Cuomo it’s that we desperately need to rethink what a real leader looks like.

Arwa Mahdawi, The Guardian

Several years ago a reporter for a Mobile newspaper asked me what were the essentials for community resilience. My answer was “There are five things: leadership, leadership, leadership, connections and capital. And the last two don’t count without effective leadership.”

Last June, I took a sort of zen look at the attributes of a leader. But that left open the question implied by the quote above: how do we recognize leadership. More importantly in terms of our communities, how can we recognize effective leadership. In one way, it’s surprisingly easy to recognize a leader because the one unmistakable hallmark of any leader is – followers. But having followers doesn’t mean that the leader is effective. Some leaders recognize where people want to go and simply get out in front of them (President Trump might be a good example). In effect, they let their followers push them along. Others – perhaps more visionary – pull their followers toward what they believe is a better place (Both President Roosevelts are good examples). These are the ones who are most likely to be effective leaders.

So let me advance an hypothesis: an effective leader is one who strengthens the community. We can thus evaluate our leaders’ effectiveness by looking at our community’s trajectories; i.e., by determining whether the community’s social, economic, human, cultural, governance and environmental capital accounts are increasing, decreasing or staying the same.

Strengthening the community also means that the community’s resilience is also increased. More capital means that the community can better resist chronic stresses, and has the wherewithal to more rapidly recover from acute crises. Further, it means that the community can seize the opportunities inherent in our changing world.

Thus, evaluating our leaders’ effectiveness is analogous to balancing your checkbook, or looking at how your investments in your retirement account are doing. For each type of community capital, look at the bottom line. Ask whether it’s growing or – hopefully not – shrinking.

There are a few key indicators that are easy to determine:

Community growth. If more people are coming into the community than leaving, then leadership must be doing something right. If we dig a little deeper, we may find that growth is due to business leaders transforming the community’s economy (like Hugh McColl and John Belk in Charlotte), or cultural leaders increasing the “livability” of a city (e.g., Mayor Joe Riley in Charleston).

Conversely, if the community’s population is decreasing, it is a sign that the community is not functioning at an acceptable level for many, in one or more ways. Fewer people mean fewer connections, meaning less social capital. And if those who are leaving are taking their money and their businesses with them, less economic capital as well.

Economic vigor. Communities with vigorous local economies tend to have a buzz about them. At the local level, money changing hands at a restaurant, a barber shop, a small store is as much a social as a financial transaction. In the chaos caused by our responses to the coronavirus, too many leaders seem to have forgotten – or ignored – the intimate tie between the economic and the social health in our communities. Those communities whose leaders did not forget this are the ones most likely to recover the soonest. And as our communities slouch toward their rebirth, effective leaders will find ways to strengthen this tie.

Built environment. Effective leaders maintain their community’s built capital. They know that boarded up buildings, streets acne-ed with potholes, and colored water coming from the tap “incentivize” those who can to leave the community.

Human environment. Especially in times of stress, communities rely on a skilled populace to function. Effective community leaders recognize that they have to keep those with essential skills from leaving the community. Most importantly, they must nurture new generations with future-ready skills to take their place. The loss of meaningful learning is just one of the consequences of covid. Also being lost in some communities are opportunities to challenge the best and brightest in the community to fully develop their skills.

Effective leaders will find ways to make up the lost time, e.g., with extra school days, summer sessions and educational “boot camps.” Ineffective leaders will see spikes in dropouts in their community; and a depressing loss of skills especially in poorer sections of the community.

Governance. Leaders have to make choices. If the community’s leadership is making choices that increase the community’s capital accounts, or that protect them in times of stress, then they are being effective leaders. There are plenty of barriers to making good choices: conflicting groups vying for power within the community; ideology; a lack of accurate information for decision-making. Effective leaders overcome them.

We all have seen the sorry spectacles of the elected leaders in some of our major cities refusing to take decisive action to protect their communities from destructive riots. Too often, it seems that, as Blake Carson puts it, “We live in a time when governments seem to lack the will and the competence to do hard things.”

Effective leadership is essential if a community is to be resilient. Determining the effectiveness of your community’s leadership is as simple as answering – “What’s in your community’s wallet?”

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Resilience in the Age of Stupid

The Age of Stupid: A world where dialogue is dead; a world where we have stopped engaging with those with whom we don’t agree; a world where we no longer have to listen or expose ourselves to other ideas that may challenge our confirmation bias. Social media has made the promotion of ignorance much easier. With a simple block, unfriend or ban click, we can ensure that the only information we are exposed to comes from our trusted tribe of like-minded thinkers.

The Risk-Monger

Like most of you, I’m sure, I care deeply about the issues of the day. But I know that our media echo chambers (whether MSNBC or OANN) give me – at best – only a part of any story. Over the last couple of years I’ve turned to blogs, trying to see ascertain the actual situation to draw intelligent conclusions. So I read the Recovery Diva and Pointman; Living on the Real World and Climate, Etc; and most recently, the Risk-Monger.

In the passage above the Risk-Monger has provided an all-too-accurate description of the times we live in. The Left and Right are united only in their disdain for everyone else. Their shouted invectives and imprecations of their opponents drown out the more civil voices of those in the Great Middle. Their hysteria is almost cult-like – they sound like modern-day miniature Grand Inquisitors enforcing impossible doctrines.

According to the Pew Trust, a majority of Republican voters are afraid to voice their political beliefs (approximately one-third of Americans). In the wake of the election, we have seen people whose only sin was to work for the White House demonized and denied jobs. Is this the unity and mutual regard our new President promised?

Ultimately, a community’s resilience – its ability to recover from disruption – comes down to the ability of its leaders to work together to achieve common goals. That requires trust, and an ability to communicate with each other. Too often, however, we seem to be living the following parable:

In a land far, far away…

There lived two kinds of people. One was red and could see only red, the other was blue and could see only blue. They spoke different languages. The Reds were great at tasks involving red objects, OK at tasks involving orange objects, but couldn’t even see green or blue objects.

Conversely, the Blues were great if only Blue objects were involved, OK with most green tasks, but were hopeless if orange or red objects were involved.

What one would build – even if good – the other could not see, and would unwittingly blunder into and destroy. Since they couldn’t see each other or understand each other, they never could agree on anything. So no problems were ever solved.

Trust is an essential ingredient for working together, but trust fades where fear treads. This lack of trust in each other – borne of the political cacophany and covid’s woes – seriously compromises our ability to pull together in time of crisis. Thus those of us who care about our communities must ask how resilient they can be in this Age of Stupid.

As for most things in this real world, the answer is – it depends. If disasters have a direction, recovery has a context. The type and magnitude of a disruption; the community’s topology; the resources available for recovery; and the community’s leadership itself will combine to form the context for recovery. Taken together, they will determine how far and how fast a community can come back after disruption. And while I’ve couched this in terms of disaster, it is just as true for communities trying to seize opportunities or to forge new ones.

Disruption. The type of disruption is important because it determines what forms of community capital are lost or damaged and thus what needs to be replenished or repaired. Thus, covid has severely strained our social capital accounts; our responses to it have reduced our financial capital. The magnitude of the disruption sets a minimum level of resources needed for recovery.

Community topology. A community’s topology – how the various people and community organizations are arranged and interrelated – is one of the least studied but most important aspects of a community’s context. The connections – or lack of connections due to conflicts – obviously play important roles in communications and resource flows.* If a disaster sets a minimum level of resources needed for recovery, then conflicts (or the lack of connections between resources and where they’re needed) can raise the resource bar significantly. The rebuilding of the World Trade Center provides a telling example. Deep disagreements among the various regional “partners” increased both the cost (perhaps by as much as $10 billion!) and the duration (by over a decade) of the recovery.

Resources. The resources needed for recovery go beyond the financial costs. Each of the capital accounts impacted by the disruption have to be replenished. After Katrina, the physical damage had to be repaired. This required financial capital as well as human capital – construction professionals – who were in short supply even before the disaster.

Leadership. One of the facets of the Age of Stupid that should be glaringly obvious is that leadership at the national and community levels is not unitary. While the federal government can claim some credit for mobilizing the resources to develop vaccines so rapidly, it was Big Pharma and its resources that actually did it. The mayors of our riot-torn cities – Portland, Seattle, Kenosha and others – can lead the cheers and can remove bureaucratic barriers, but ultimately businesses, non-profits, associations and “just folks” will have to work together if these cities are to recover. And connections from a community’s leadership to external sources of support (federal aid; expertise in recovery of specific types of businesses – think tourism, for example) will also be crucial.

Resilience is possible in the Age of Stupid, if the context for recovery is right. As the parable illustrates, however, we need people working together to provide lasting solutions to the multi-hued problems we face. Neither the Reds nor the Blues have a monopoly on the Truth – or on Mendacity. We should not trust either side working alone to solve our problems, but only both working together.


* I cannot stress enough the impact on my thinking of the work done by Erica Kuligowski and Christine Bevc, under Kathleen Tierney’s guidance, in this regard. Looking at regional emergency management organizations (UASIs), their work clearly showed that some topologies were more effective at mobilizing resources than others.

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Even Pretty Models Can Give Ugly Results

All models are wrong; some are useful.

George Box

More and more, leaders of every sort of enterprise – from corporations to federal, state and local governments – are using mathematical models to help guide them in decision-making. Clearly, the US and UK governments’ approaches to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic were greatly influenced by the model developed by Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College in London, and his co-workers. The calls for the Green New Deal stand (or fall) in part on the accuracy (or not) of the predictions of numerous global climate models. Many companies rely on weather models to guide important operating decisions. Most financial institutions (e.g., banks and esp. the Federal Reserve) rely on models to develop strategies for dealing with the future.

Leaders are increasingly relying on models because they are a convenient way to harmonize the cacophony of data that assails all of us daily. But as Mae West once said, “A model’s just an imitation of the real thing.” (For those of you who don’t remember Mae West, think of Dolly Parton smirking Nikki Glazer’s innuendo.). Like a Monet landscape, a model accentuates certain facets of reality, ignores others and, sometimes, fills in blank spaces that can’t be seen. Thus, though produced by scientists, there is a certain art in crafting a model – what to include, what to ignore, how to bridge regions where data may not be available.

The snare facing a decision maker in using the results of a mathematical model is that even the most elegant of models may mislead. The modeler, like Monet, has made choices about what data to include. If the model does not represent all of the data relevant to the decision to be made, then its usefulness is suspect. Decision makers need some sort of user’s guide to avoid that snare.

In my career, I have both developed and used models developed by others (usually successfully!). I have learned that the precision of a model’s results provide an illusion of certainty; i.e., the results may have three decimal places, but sometimes can only be relied upon within a factor of ten. Along the way, I’ve developed a few rules of thumb that have served me well in using the results of mathematical models. I generally use these in the form of questions I ask myself.

What was the model developed for? If the model was developed for a different purpose, then I have to satisfy myself that the model is appropriate for the decision I have to make – e.g., what data were included; what were omitted. If the model was developed for a different purpose, I need to dig into what important facets of my situation may not be represented in the model.

Has the model been successfully used before for my purpose? In the case of the Imperial College infectious disease model, it was developed to look at deaths from SARS and other infectious diseases; thus, presumably it is suitable for its use in the current pandemic. However, the model’s previous predictions of fatalities were off by orders of magnitude. Almost certainly, its predictions are upper bounds; however, they are so high that their usefulness is questionable.

Is my situation included within the bounds of the model? The Federal Reserve’s actions to respond to the pandemic are being driven, in part, by econometric models based on past history. Clearly, however, the usefulness of those models is open to debate – we’ve never been in this situation before – it’s like asking a blind man to paint a landscape. This can be very important when two or more models are coupled, e.g., modeling economic changes based on the results of a climate change model. If the climate change model’s results are based on an implausible scenario (RCP 8.5) then the results of the economic model are highly suspect.

What is the uncertainty associated with the model’s results? In some cases, the uncertainty is so large that the models results are not useful for decision-making. And if the modeler can’t tell me how certain/uncertain the model’s results are, that’s a huge “Caution” flag.

How sensitive are the model’s results to variability in its inputs (e.g., initial conditions)? This is of crucial importance when considering large-scale mathematical models of complex phenomena (e.g., climate change). If the model’s results are very sensitive to its inputs, then the model’s input must be known very precisely. If the model developer has not performed a sensitivity analysis, another “Caution” flag goes up.

Has the model been validated in some way? This can be done in a variety of ways, but my order of preference is:

  1. Showing that model outputs are in reasonable accord with a real-world data set. “Reasonable” means that the agreement is good enough I am convinced I can use the model’s results for my situation to make good decisions.
  2. Showing that each piece of the model is consistent with established principles. In some cases, there are no real-world data for comparison. If not, I want the modeler to be able to demonstrate that the algorithms in the model are consistent with accepted principles. This is fairly straightforward for physical phenomena unless the model assumes that they are coupled. It is much less so when one brings in social science constructs.
  3. (actually down about #22 on my list). Peer review. Sometimes modeling results from peer-reviewed journal articles are offered as guides for decision-making. If the model has not been otherwise validated, I am wary in using its results. Peer review is not what it used to be (if it ever was!) . I see it all too often becoming the last refuge of scoundrels – friends approving friends’ papers with limited review. The failed experiment of replicating some of the most widely accepted results in psychological research (less than half could in fact be replicated); the David Baltimore scandal; and too many others lead me to accept peer review by itself as validation only if I have no other choice.

Our leaders – at all levels – are increasingly relying on the results of a wide variety of models as decision-making aids. Often these are held up by experts as “the science” that must be followed. And yet, even the most elegant – the prettiest – of models may mislead. If a model’s results are accepted without question, the consequences for the community may be quite ugly. The wise leader trusts, but verifies by asking simple questions such as these.

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Leadership

Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness.

Sun Tzu

This year has tested leaders at all levels in ways they never could have imagined.  A pandemic spawning an economic crisis, coupled with widespread social unrest.  One has to wonder if a plague of frogs is next!

Effective leadership is essential for community resilience.  While we all recognize what a leader should do, we often overlook what a leader should be – those attributes necessary for effective leadership.  The Art of War – the two millenium old classic Chinese treatise on war by Sun Tzu – has much to offer us as we try to understand what is needed for effective community leadership. 

According to Sun Tzu, a successful leader must have the five traits listed above.  In the context of a community and its resilience, these traits might be better described as follows.

Intelligence.  Intelligence in leadership means that the leader knows how to clearly identify an objective, communicate it, plan to achieve it and then mobilize the resources needed to actually achieve the objective.  This implies that an intelligent community leader recognizes when the community must adapt to changing circumstances.  The intelligent leader is able to articulate that need and initiate the planning effort needed to affect change.  The efforts of city leaders in southeast Florida to adapt to rising seas are good examples.

Trustworthiness.  A trustworthy leader is recognized by the community as a person of integrity.  Thus, the community believes that the leader will carry out promised actions, and will provide support to the rest of the community to implement action plans.  Such a leader is thus able to communicate more effectively to the larger community, because even unpopular messages are more likely to be heard.  The public’s trust in Mayor Latoya Cantrell has played an important role in both limiting the coronavirus death toll in New Orleans, and in dampening the potential for violence.

Humaneness.   A humane leader cares about the community, and that caring is manifested in actions.  The community believes that the leader “feels their pain,” and therefore is more likely to follow where the leader is going.  This recognized innate humaneness of the leader is especially important when trying to reconcile different factions within the community.  Since mobilizing human and social capital is so important for action, humaneness

Courage.  A leader must have the courage to persevere even when obstacles are encountered.  In essence, the courage needed by an effective leader is born of a certain innate confidence in one’s own integrity and intelligence – the leader believes the community is on the right course.

Sternness.  By “sternness,” Sun Tzu means a sort of rigorous fairness.  Rewards and punishments are strictly based on actions, not the person acting.  Ultimately, this sternness is the result of a sort of self-discipline in which the leader may have favorites but does not favor them. It inherently results in leadership that holds itself responsible, and does not fear to hold others accountable for their actions.

Many of the commenters on The Art of War have stressed the danger of valuing one of these above the others. For example, excessive humaneness (think empathy) can lead to either weakness or paralysis; courage to foolhardiness. Excessive sternness can lead to cruelty; intelligence to arrogance. Leaders thus should strive for an Aristotelian balance of these attributes.

The transformation of Charlotte, NC, from a textiles to a financial center illustrates the importance of several of these leadership traits.  Up until the 1970’s, Charlotte had been one of the leading centers for the textile industry in the country.  The heads of two of the largest banks in North Carolina and the head of Duke Power recognized that the demise of that industry threatened Charlotte’s vitality.  All three were embedded in the community, and had earned its trust. All three passionately cared about Charlotte’s future, and their their caring about the city’s future was widely recognized by the public.  Acting largely independently of city and county governments, these three formed an organization aimed at helping Charlotte adapt to these changing conditions.  As plans were developed, these three spearheaded the transformational effort.  They helped rebuild some of the poorest sections of the city (encountering opposition because many of these were predominately black), courageously turning what had been almost slums into desirable neighborhoods.  In spite of criticism and carping, these three eventually transformed Charlotte into what has become the second largest financial center in the country.

Many of our communities and our country are embroiled in painful and often rancorous debates about racism, inequality and our future.  Effective leadership is essential if we are to emerge from the acrimony and build the better future we all want.  Sun Tzu’s wisdom can point us toward those leaders likely to be effective. Leaders who have the intelligence to see the problems and to recognize real solutions. Leaders with the recognized trustworthiness and passion to move the community forward. Leaders who care enough and are courageous enough to enlist the entire community; yet disciplined enough to hold themselves and everyone else accountable.

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A User’s Guide to Expert Advice

All your knowledge is about the past and all your decisions are about the future.

Ian Wilson

The Mayor of my small city owns a short string of dry cleaners. He sort of galumphs around town like a latter-day Bullwinkle. He’s a small-town avatar of Alfred E. Neuman.

His job – like that of all leaders – is to mobilize resources and get the right things done. But in our complex world, it’s often difficult for a leader to know what the right things are. Decisions must be made in realms in which community leaders have no experience or expertise. Thus, they must rely on the advice of experts for guidance.

For a decade or so, I was the recognized technical expert in a field fraught with technical challenges and political minefields, where decisions sometimes involved hundreds of millions of dollars. I later led a multi-million dollar enterprise, where I had to rely on the expertise of others. Having both provided expert advice and used others’ expertise to make important decisions, let me share a few lessons I’ve learned.

Experts advise, leaders decide. This is the most important lesson I’ve learned! Simple, isn’t it – but packed with meaning. First and foremost, a leader needs to define victory – what is the desired outcome. We all want to make data-informed decisions, but that means that the leader needs to lay out the context for the decision. If not, the expert’s advice may not only be misdirected but might lead to unintended consequences. In my experience, describing one or more desirable end-states and asking how to achieve them gives better results than effectively limiting the expert’s response.

Let me use a climate change example. South Florida has seen rising sea levels, and increasing numbers of King Tides and flooding of low-lying areas. Area leaders are united in wanting to limit the impacts of flooding on their communities. One leader might go to his experts and ask how to prevent roads from flooding. Experts might answer that roadways should be elevated. And – voila! – it works, except that now the flooding is in residents’ yards and houses. A better approach might be to ask how to limit flooding so that it did not impact either transportation or disrupt people’s lives, leading to changes in land use and better water shed management.

Another example. The US approach to the pandemic has been to “flatten the curve,” i.e., victory was defined as no Covid-19 deaths due to lack of appropriate medical care. The Swedish approach has focused on protecting the most vulnerable while not intruding too much on daily life. The rising tide of deaths of despair (not to mention medical procedures delayed too long), the economic upheaval and the social unrest we in the US are already experiencing may indicate that Swedish leaders were better at defining victory. No matter which approach ends up with a better end-state, this highlights the importance of carefully defining victory.

One other point to remember. Decisions, particularly public policy decisions must transcend domain expertise by considering other factors. It’s not enough to follow the science. Legal, economic (resulting unemployment) and social impacts (e.g., potential domestic violence, increased deaths of despair) and squishy things like values and the public’s expectations must also be considered. Thus, for decisions with broad societal ramifications, a leader needs advice from a number of different disciplines. The leader has to balance their different perspectives and try to craft a decision that comes as close as possible to the desired outcome. Ultimately, that’s why it’s lonely at the top – leaders often have to implement decisions in an uncertain environment.

Experts are human – usually. Man is a pattern-seeking animal. One of the keys to our survival as a species is that we see patterns (for example, of potential danger) and act on them (e.g., run like hell in the opposite direction). An expert’s advice is most often based on the pattern the expert perceives. Experts’ expertise is thus simply the sum of their experiences, i.e., what they have seen and what they have learned. Sometimes we take that to mean that an expert has to be some hoary old fart who’s been around for years. While it does take time to develop expertise, it’s really more a matter of how much has been learned rather than the time spent learning it (i.e., it’s better to have learned from thirty different experiences, than to have experienced the same thing thirty times).

In my case, I was relatively young (and in a young field) but had seen – and caused! – a lot of failures and had worked hard to learn their causes and prevention. In my case, that bred a great deal of humility – I recognized that I probably knew more than most others, but also recognized how little I knew compared to all that there was to know. Leaders should beware of experts who think that they know it all. They’re likely to introduce cognitive biases into their advice (e.g., cherrypicking data; ignoring facts that don’t fit their preconceptions).

Just as dangerous is the expert who recognizes the uncertainties within a given situation (i.e., can’t find a pattern) but defaults to some other basis for advising leaders (e.g., an unvalidated computer model; use and abuse of models will be the subject of a later post). Too often, these situations result in a sort of “Groupthink” – where experts cluster around a single concept that they might individually not support so strongly.

I’ve learned one other useful lesson: experts, like the rest of us, have biases that may not match those of the decision-maker. I’m sure many of you have been in the situation where a consultant has recommended a course of action that would benefit him, but might or might not achieve victory. The expert may recommend a very conservative course of action so that there is little danger of the expert being proven wrong in his field – the expert can claim success whether or not he’s pointed to the best path. If the expert is part of an entrenched bureaucracy, she may tilt her advice so that it benefits her organization.

Hedgehogs and foxes. Philip Tetlock popularized a concept that dates back to the Greek poet-warrior Archilocus – there are those that know lots of little things (foxes), and those that know one big thing (hedgehogs). This applies to experts as well. Each type has its strengths and weaknesses. Foxes are more likely to foresee potential unintended consequences of a proposed action than hedgehogs, and to be collaborative. However, hedgehogs’ advice may reflect their deeper understanding within a given situation, and thus be superior for bounded problems. Conversely, hedgehogs often are guilty of “epistemic trespassing,” believing that their expertise in one discipline makes their opinion of great value in another.

In my experience, experts from a specialized organization tend to be hedgehogs; broader organizations provide the broader range of experiences needed for foxes. The decision-maker needs to remember that while life is not stovepiped, bureaucracies are – the best advice comes from a competitive intellectual market, involving both foxes and hedgehogs. In the words of Dr. Li Wenliang, who tried to warn the Chinese government of the dangers of Covid-19, “There should be more than one voice in a healthy society,” i.e., an effective decision should have broad input.

To use – or not to use. Let me briefly close with an echo of something I touched on above. The decision-maker is responsible – and accountable – for decisions made, not the expert. Saying that “I’m just following the Science” is a copout and an abdication of responsibility. In my career, I’ve tried to determine whether to follow expert advice based on three factors:

• My trust in the expert or group of experts. This entails factors such as their inherent biases, their track record, their confidence in their conclusions and their consideration of potential unintended consequences.
• The inherent quality of the advice. This entails factors such as how well the current situation seems to match the experts’ assumptions and the experts’ appropriate consideration of uncertainties.
• The fit to the decision. The experts may give me great advice but it’s up to me to determine whether it actually will lead to victory as I’ve defined it.

All leaders eventually are faced with decisions which transcend their own experience. The increasing complexity of our communities, and the unprecedented challenges they face, require that the leaders of our communities receive expert advice. But those leaders must recognize that they are the ones who will make the decisions, and who will be held accountable for their results. I hope that these extracts from my own experience will help leaders better utilize experts and their expertise, and to make better decisions based on expert advice.

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A brief postscript. This week, we surpassed 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus in the US. On Memorial Day, we also honored those whose lives were sacrificed in service to their country. We can best honor those whose lives were lost from the virus by learning – and acting on – the lessons their loss can teach us. We need to do this with eyes not shaded by party or prejudice, and with a clear intent to not walk down this path again.