Crises Are Inevitable. Why Do We Miss The Warning Signs?

Inspired by The Prepared Leader: Emerge from Any Crisis More Resilient Than Before, I recently wrote about the inevitability of crises in organizational settings.

The authors of the book, Erika H. James and Lynn Perry Wooten, write, “Crises are never one-off events. They happen again and again, although we never seem to expect them.”

James and Wooten wrote The Prepared Leader to help leaders prepare for crises, but why don’t we already? They write:

A crisis can feel like it hits you and your organization out of the blue. In reality, certain types of crisis can simmer in the background until the conditions are just right for disaster to materialize. These smoldering crises can be hard to predict, even if they are technically foreseeable.

Crucially, this is because these crises “are often tied to failure in organizational culture or procedures—the same failure that allows them to happen while also making them hard to see or track.” Bury sexual harassment claims, for example, and it will eventually turn into a crisis. (And, worse than whatever “crisis” befalls an organization, real people get hurt behind this stuff.)

I think of Charlie Brown and Lucy and the running football gag by Charles M. Schulz. Like a crisis that could have been avoided or at least prepared for, it gets Charlie Brown every time.

Why is this?

James and Wooten list five biases (“cognitive distortions”) that prepared leaders need to recognize—and overcome:

  1. Probability Neglect: we “underestimate the probability that something (bad) will happen to us.” They give the example of COVID-19, and how many North Americans thought it was all the way over there in China and would never reach us.
  2. Hyperbolic Discounting: it’s easier to focus on the present than the future, even if (especially if?) the problems of the future feel overwhelming.
  3. Anchoring Effect: we “tend to cleave to the first impression or understanding we form about a risk or threat.” This especially serves us poorly if we know such-and-such a person as someone who would never do that, even though they’ve just been credibly accused by multiple people. The cognitive dissonance in such cases is painful and difficult to resolve.
  4. Exponential Growth Bias: this is bias against the exponential growth that a crisis tends to have. In other words, we think situations unfold in a linear, straightforward way. They often don’t.
  5. Sunk-Cost Fallacy: “once we have settled on a course of action, and invested time, effort, and resources, it’s hard to change direction.” Once Charlie Brown is running toward that football, even though he knows Lucy is going to pull it out from under him, he still follows through and tries to kick it.

The Prepared Leader calls all of us to hold these cognitive distortions up to the light right now, because “the next crisis is already heading your way.” Or you’re in one right now. They warn readers not to “let your guard down,” which may be our default mode, especially when our biases almost hard-wire us to miss warning signs.

Is there good news here? Yes! Chapter 1 of The Prepared Leader profiles Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, and his brilliant (and seemingly lightning-fast) move to implement a “Bubble” when COVID-19 hit, so that the season could continue.

Silver’s actions remind us that we have agency, even in the midst of a crisis. In short, we should “have a learning organizational culture, with processes and protocols in place to surface and share information and to resolve any blockages in knowledge flow.”

Leaders and organizations that try to wish a crisis away (tempting as it is) won’t do much better with the next one. Examining and trying to overcome our cognitive biases is an important start.

Crises as Learning Opportunities

Wisdom and Fuel


Erika H. James and Lynn Perry Wooten are experts in organizational leadership, especially leadership through crises. They each moved into major new roles of leadership at the start of 2020: Dr. James became Dean of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Wooten became the President of Simmons University. They describe what would already be a set of daunting, exciting, high-stakes challenges in leadership positions.

“Then,” they write, “COVID-19 hit.”

I can relate (albeit on a smaller scale). The church I pastored for nearly eight years was confronting its own constellation of challenges as Fall 2019 turned to Winter 2020. I was already experiencing the reality James and Wooten describe: “A crisis will invariably test your leadership to the very limits of your abilities.”

Then COVID-19 hit.

In early 2021 I accepted a call to pastor a diverse, urban church in the heart of Boston. When I began pastoring there, the church was still not far removed from the previous Pastor’s departure; there had been about a year of the Pastor position’s being vacant; COVID-19 was still raging; and we didn’t have a building to meet in.

It seemed the congregation had experienced loss upon loss. Loss may not always be the same thing as crisis, but the congregation that had just called me had had its leadership tested “to the very limits of [its] abilities.”

We’ve stabilized since then, thanks be to God. I’m a month away from the two-year mark as Pastor there. Most if not all of us have been vaccinated, with all the boosters. We rent space in a church just a block or two away from our previous location.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t face new crises—now or lurking around the corner.

Against those backdrops, I eagerly began reading James and Wooten’s new book, The Prepared Leader: Emerge from Any Crisis More Resilient Than Before, recently published by Wharton School Press. (Thanks to the press for the review copy, provided with no expectation of me.)

As I started the introduction, I realized this book would be powerful and instructive for me, even if there had never been a COVID-19. But seeing how Drs. James and Wooten integrate findings from that new (and still present) global health crisis make their work especially relevant.

Without downplaying the negative disruptive potential of a crisis, they describe how crises can be opportunities:

If there’s one thing we have learned about crises in our research over the years, it is that they bring opportunities as much as they bring risks. Crises are opportunities to sharpen your leadership skills and to unearth new expertise—often in surprising places. They are also opportunities to learn—to determine which important lessons a crisis has to share and to embed those lessons in your leadership practice going forward.

There’s so much wisdom to receive and unpack here—and this is just in the Introduction! As I read these lines, here are all the opportunities a crisis brings, according to the authors:

  • Crisis brings opportunities to become a more skilled leader
  • Crisis brings opportunities to find new expertise in your organization
  • Crisis brings opportunities to discover that this new expertise could be somewhere (or with someone) you didn’t expect
  • Crisis brings opportunities to learn important lessons
  • Crisis brings opportunities to integrate these lessons into leadership in the future

I know that crises, loss, and threats all bring opportunities with them. I’ve heard this before. And I don’t disagree, but it’s a truth that—if I’m honest—I’ve had a hard time appreciating. “Consider it pure joy,” the biblical book of James says, “whenever you face trials of many kinds.” No, I consider it pure joy when I don’t have to face any trials!

But James goes on, “Because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work, so that you may become mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Trials mature us. The testing of our faith forms our character, even makes us more like Jesus.

Do I like that reality? Not really. If I were God, would I try to create a set of conditions whereby people could develop perseverance without the trials? Maybe, but then again, any sentence that begins with “If I were God…” (especially when I write it) is a bad one.

I believe that Apostle James, Dr. James, and Dr. Wooten are not only right about the formative effect of crises/trials—I think they are preaching an essential life truth.

Crises are inevitable, The Prepared Leader says. Jesus said, “In this world you will have much trouble.” The Psalmist wrote, “Many are the afflictions (troubles, dangers, trials) of the righteous.”

The questions are: how will we respond to a crisis, what will we learn from it, and how will we prepare for the next one?

It’s rare the book that I want to write about after just the introduction, but The Prepared Leader has been as good as a cup of coffee with an engaging Executive Coach (or two, in this case).

Next time I’ll write about James and Wooten’s insights about why we fail to foresee crises, even when a crisis give us hints that it might be coming.