Exceptional Opportunity in this Crisis

The danger in this crisis is not that we will not solve it. The danger is that we think too small – that we do not see the extraordinary opportunity it presents.

If we spend our energy hunkering down, trying to maintain and preserve what we have, we will drop our eyes from the horizon to the ground and we will surely end with only that.

Last week I had the pleasure of working closely with Patrick Jones, Executive Director & CEO, International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. Pat is intensely focused on seizing the opportunity in today’s climate. He brought that zeal to his board’s annual meeting.

The purpose of this meeting was to develop an appropriate action plan given the changing environment: new administration in DC, and the economic pressures on the industry and his member organizations.  The board would not revisit the Strategic Plan or change their Business Strategy. Instead they would operate inside it, using the pressures of the day to move their plan forward in big leaps.

First, Jones brought in his president, Kary Witt, Golden Gate Bridge Manager. The two of them started months ago planning how to find the opportunity in this crucial time. Then Jones and Witt selected an expert to address their board, helping to raise the sense of urgency and highlight the need for bold action. This is a classic technique for elevating an appropriate level of urgency.

Robert Kuttner, journalist, economist, and author of Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformational Presidency, was chosen as the opening keynote.  (You can watch him on NOW on PBS talking about this work.)

Kuttner has studied transformational presidents like Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson on civil rights.  He has also studied those who failed to turn a crisis into an opportunity like Hoover, Carter, and George W. Bush.

To paraphrase some of Kuttner’s remarks: The danger is not that we will not make it through this crisis. The danger is that we will think too small and not seize the immense opportunity. If we look at transformational presidents we can see that they were able to take a crisis situation and use it to move public opinion to a place that had been deemed politically impossible. When Lincoln took office, the challenge was how do we keep the union together? By 1863 he had moved it to the point where he could free the slaves.

Jones emerged from the board meeting with a powerful agenda, crafted by his most active members. It laid out a plan through 2009 that was grounded in the reality of IBTTA's financial data, and aspired to transform IBTTA's role in the sector. This included taking a proactive role in the transportation sector to be part of the country’s economic solution, seeking innovative partnerships to deliver greater value, transforming his meetings to address the hottest topics his members are facing, staying closely involved with the new administration as transportation and infrastructure legislation is introduced, and continued international expansion so IBTTA can "reap the collective intelligence of our global community and apply it on the ground wherever it is needed most."

Difficult times demand bold leaders like Jones.  People are hungry for a way through. When you pull them together and give clear instruction on how best to address a challenging situation, they will rise to the challenge and assist with their expertise, experience, know-how, and action.

Are you rising to the opportunity inherent in today’s economic crisis? Are you using the forces at play to move public opinion to do the politically impossible? Are you grabbing the reins and driving forward into the world to achieve your dreams?

- Seth Kahan, VisionaryLeadership.com

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  • Madelyn Blair

    Seth, I always enjoy your challenge questions. They called to mind a time when our vice president was being replaced (at the time, I was a division chief at the World Bank). Everyone stood frozen in their tracks. I decided that inter regnums are prime times for taking action. There is always the risk that the new person will tell you to stop. In my case, the new vice president said that he was so pleased to see that the department had not stopped moving on its vision and then cited the actions that my division had been taking. It was a great lesson for me to never let perceived barriers become real ones. This feels very like such a time of perceived barriers. Like then, I am charging forward on my visions until I reach a real barrier, and even then I may not stop. M. Blair