Good leaders seize crises to remake organizational habits. NASA administrators, for instance, tried for years to improve the agency’s safety habits, but those efforts were unsuccessful until the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. In the wake of that tragedy, the organization was able to overhaul how it enforced quality standards. Airline pilots, too, spent years trying to convince plane manufacturers and air traffic controllers to redesign how cockpits were laid out and traffic controllers communicated. Then, a runway error on the Spanish island of Tenerife in 1977 killed 583 people and, within five years, cockpit design, runway procedures, and air traffic controller communication routines were overhauled.
In fact, crises are such valuable opportunities that a wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose. That’s exactly what occurred after the King’s Cross station fire. Five days after the blaze, the British secretary of state appointed a special investigator, Desmond Fennell, to study the incident. Fennell began by interviewing the Underground’s leadership, and quickly discovered that everyone had known—for years—that fire safety was a serious problem, and yet nothing had changed. Some administrators had proposed new hierarchies that would have clarified responsibility for fire prevention.
Others had proposed giving station managers more power so that they could bridge departmental divides. None of those reforms had been implemented.
When Fennell began suggesting changes of his own, he saw the same kinds of roadblocks—department chiefs refusing to take responsibility or undercutting him with whispered threats to their subordinates—start to emerge.
So he decided to turn his inquiry into a media circus.
He called for public hearings that lasted ninety-one days and revealed an organization that had ignored multiple warnings of risks. He implied to newspaper reporters that commuters were in grave danger whenever they rode the subway. He cross-examined dozens of witnesses who described an organization where turf battles mattered more than commuter safety. His final report, released almost a year after the fire, was a scathing, 250-page indictment of the Underground portraying an organization crippled by bureaucratic ineptitude. “Having set out as an Investigation into the events of one night,” Fennell wrote, the report’s “scope was necessarily enlarged into the examination of a system.” He concluded with pages and pages of stinging criticisms and recommendations that, essentially, suggested much of the organization was either incompetent or corrupt.
The response was instantaneous and overwhelming. Commuters picketed the Underground’s offices. The organization’s leadership was fired. A slew of new laws were passed and the culture of the Underground was overhauled. Today, every station has a manager whose primary responsibility is passenger safety, and every employee has an obligation to communicate at the smallest hint of risk. All the trains still run on time. But the Underground’s habits and truces have adjusted just enough to make it clear who has ultimate responsibility for fire prevention, and everyone is empowered to act, regardless of whose toes they might step on.
The same kinds of shifts are possible at any company where institutional habits—through thoughtlessness or neglect—have created toxic truces. A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis—or create the perception of crisis—and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel told a conference of chief executives in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown, soon after he was appointed as President Obama’s chief of staff. “This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.” Soon afterward, the Obama administration convinced a once-reluctant Congress to pass the president’s $787 billion stimulus plan. Congress also passed Obama’s health care reform law, reworked consumer protection laws, and approved dozens of other statutes, from expanding children’s health insurance to giving women new opportunities to sue over wage discrimination. It was one of the biggest policy overhauls since the Great Society and the New Deal, and it happened because, in the aftermath of a financial catastrophe, lawmakers saw opportunity.