About the Crisis Leadership Forum

To better understand the leadership dimensions of crisis situations, the Center for Creative Leadership convened a forum with formal and emergent leaders who played a role in Hurricane Katrina. We overlaid this conversation between crisis leaders with the perspectives of discussants with expertise in disaster, terrorism, public health, and leadership. This blog site is intended to continue this conversation.

To read the report on the Crisis Leadership Forum, please click here.

To read CCL's Leading Effectively newsletter on the Forum, please click here.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Pirates, Hostages, and Ambiguity on the High Seas: Countering Complex Threats with Complex Solutions

Despite what the office-supply store Staples says in its latest advertising campaign, most of the time there is no “easy button.” This is especially true in crises, which typically involve numerous actors, interdependent action, and high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty. Add to those complications malicious intent by certain actors within the crisis, and you’ve got a real problem. Such is the crisis currently in progress about 300 miles off the coast of Somalia, where a band of pirates are holding hostage Richard Phillips, captain of the U.S.-flagged cargo ship Maersk Alabama.

In the still-developing story, pirates attempted to take control of the cargo ship—an attempt that ran afoul when crewmembers resisted. Now, four pirates are holding the ship’s captain hostage in a lifeboat, spawning a confluence of numerous different actors from the United States bent on resolving the crisis. And the reason why so many different actors are getting involved has something to do with (a) the complexity of the event itself, and (b) something scholars have called “requisite variety.”

First, consider the complexity of dangerous pirates operating in international waters off the coast of the Horn of Africa, holding an American ship captain hostage, and communicating no clear paths toward resolution. National reputations, corporate interests, and general notions about international-shipping safety are at stake. Thus, a number of powerful parties—Maersk Line, (owners of the Maersk Alabama), U.S. President Barack Obama and his White House, the U.S. State Department, and others—have a vested interest in the event and its outcomes.

Second, an event of this level of complexity necessarily requires a complex response. This is the notion of “requisite variety,” which essentially means that successfully dealing with multifaceted circumstances requires a similar amount of diversity within the response. There is simply so much ambiguity and so many interests involved that many different group representatives with different areas of expertise must interact and come to a collective solution. For example, the U.S. Navy’s response includes aerial surveillance and on-site monitoring by the guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge. Furthermore, the FBI is now involved, and its hostage negotiators have been attempting to establish communications with the hostage takers via a satellite link aboard Bainbridge.

The collaboration between the Navy and the FBI is a good example of escalating requisite variety because Navy leaders recognized that the situation was more complex than their capabilities, and that they needed to collaborate with people who have more extensive hostage-negotiation expertise. For almost three years, I served as an officer aboard a ship identical to the USS Bainbridge. The ship itself is an extraordinary machine. It’s highly maneuverable, technologically advanced, and has a wide range of defensive, offensive, and surveillance capabilities. Its crew of about 300 comprises a highly diversified and well-trained cadre of subject-matter experts and naval-warfare generalists, so the Bainbridge and its crew are an example of a highly complex system designed to counter complex challenges.

But within this current crisis off the coast of Somalia, the decision by Navy leaders to reach out to the FBI for more expertise in the hostage-negotiation realm demonstrates a key competency of crisis leadership. Leaders must be able to recognize that when a situation requires more diversity in expertise, more requisite variety. And if they are successful in matching the complexity of the environment with a complex and well-coordinated response, positive outcomes become more likely.

So it’s an unfortunate fact that there’s no “easy button.” What leaders can do within crises, however, is pay close attention to their environments and ensure a finely grained division of labor among diverse experts in their response. They must counter complex threats with complex, collaborative solutions. It’s not easy, but it’s one key part of good crisis leadership.



Nice article Ben. I'm watching this from the "inside" and agree that it was a good, collaborative inter-agency effort!

Ben Baran said...

Thanks! That's very exciting that you have a front-row seat to events like this.