Those old dudes knew a thing or two!

By Bruce Grady

I am not just referring to those of us with a little grey, or little at all, hair.  I am going way back – to the 17th Century and renowned French philosopher, mathematician and inventor Blaise Pascal.

Pascal was a genius, inventing the first calculating machine while still a teenager.  As well as making major contributions to mathematics he also invented the first syringe and the hydraulic press.

Pascal was a prolific writer and perhaps his most influential work was the ‘Pensees’ (translated as ‘Thoughts’) – an examination of philosophy, human values and faith.

In the Pensees Pascal wrote “We do not chose as captain of a ship the passenger who is of the best family”. While he was writing about the politics of the time this simple, but powerful, idea is still as applicable today.  It is also particularly relevant to the way we approach crisis management.

disaster management leadership for all seasons...

disaster management leadership for all seasons…

What Pascal is saying is that we should always select the most skilled and proficient person for the most critical jobs.  This is fundamental risk management.  A king can steer a ship – at sea, in fair weather.  He may also host outstanding dinners at the Captains table.  But in a big storm, or navigating reefs or icebergs I would be much more comfortable with a highly skilled and experienced old sea-dog on the bridge.

All too often in disaster management leadership we see people appointed to formal crisis roles based on their position.   Little thought is given to the attitudes, skills and experience needed to be effective in times of crisis.  While I understand that the low frequency of crisis is likely the cause of this approach: I cannot condone it.  A crisis is potentially the biggest single risk to an organisations bottom line, and more importantly its reputation.  The days of accepting the gifted amateur in a crisis are over.  Customers, stakeholders and the broader community expect, and deserve, more.

There is a dilemma here.  Often the most experienced emergency managers do not hold positions of authority, do not control budget or resources. In short to make key decisions they would have to seek permission! Those in key crisis roles must have both the responsibility and the authority to commit resources and execute strategy.  Real action must occur without delay, as delay or in a crisis equals distress.   Unnecessary delay or public relations ‘spin’ equals real or perceived incompetence: incompetence equals a trashed reputation.  Now would be a good time to reflect on BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill response?

The strategic level disaster management arrangements in Queensland (Australia’s disaster capital) require that the CEO of every government department must be a member of the peak disaster committee.  Each of those CEO’s has to have been trained in disaster management, and are regularly exercised in disaster management scenarios.  This committee also comes together regularly, irrespective of the threat – the All-Hazards approach.  No matter if the cause is a flood, cyclone, oil spill, pandemic or biosecurity threat the same committee deals with strategy before, during and after. The most senior leaders are well trained, exercised and practiced.

In the scheme of billions of dollars of disaster damage annually to Queensland’s infrastructure and economy this is a small commitment to being prepared, but it requires a commitment nonetheless.  If a major crisis befell your organisation are the people who will really make the decisions properly engaged and capable within your crisis arrangements.  Have they been exposed to your arrangements and the nature of crisis management and decision making?

In a crisis are you really confident your team is capable of making timely, appropriate and effective decisions every time?  Or might they be all at sea?


Prior to his current position as Principal of RISKdimensions Bruce held the position of Assistant Director-General leading Emergency Management Queensland. Bruce is also an active member of the Global Resilience Collaborative.