Case Study Rogue Waves on the Leadership

Case Study
Rogue Waves on the Leadership Voyage
How Leaders survive and thrive from crises that
threaten to submerge their organizations, sink their
careers, and drown their souls
Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson
Executive Summary
The following are five lessons for leaders:
1. A leadership role is not an easy ride. Be advised: there are always
pending crises (rogue waves), and some may have your name on
2. Readiness and emergency preparedness are necessary but not
sufficient for survival. Without social support and commitment to
your values, you are vulnerable.
3. You have two jobs as a leader: be there for others, and be there
for yourself. There is no point in succeeding at the former while
failing at the latter.
4. Your leadership stories are open to revision. If the world changes,
you’ll have new stories. Tell your stories for your sake as well as
to benefit your organization.
5. Don’t waste your trauma. Play a bigger game. Embrace your
rogue wave experience and make a positive difference in the
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
We, the authors, have known each other and worked intermittently together
for over 30 years. Our shared professional interest is leadership, which we
have addressed as teachers, researchers, and practitioners. Recent changes in
our careers, some surprising and some smoldering, got us talking about how
leaders experience crises.
Our shelves began to fill with books about resilience, crisis management, and
emergency preparedness. But the standard readings only raised new
questions. We realized that what was treated lightly in the literature was
what most concerned us: What happens to leaders themselves, during and
after crises?
We started by talking with colleagues, reading broadly across many
disciplines, and interviewing experts. We then began to hold formal
interviews with diverse leaders across multiple sectors, including corporate
CEOs, nonprofit directors, clergy, social entrepreneurs, and government
officials. Each person had a crisis tale to tell—some had many.
We chose the rogue wave as an archetypal image of crisis. Frightening in its
suddenness, the image evokes primal dread: of the deep, of natural disaster,
and of death itself. A rogue wave story grabs attention.
When applied to organizational life, the image invited us to explore in stark
terms how leaders respond to organizational crises. Rogue wave events offer
insights into leadership behavior unclouded by second-guessing, organizational
politics, or a search for blame. We also wanted to go beyond the sympathy we
bestow on good people when bad things happen.
The lessons of a rogue wave are born out of crisis. Yet, because these lessons
concern instinctive behaviors, self-awareness, and core values, they have
meaning for leaders within the dimensions of ordinary, daily issues and
problems. They can provide a tutorial about leadership. Let’s begin with a
literal rogue wave story as a source for the archetype.
A wave so high…
Kale Garcia is a ship captain and a professional deep sea crab fisherman.
Twelve years ago, on a February night, he was piloting the Auriga, a 160-foot
trawler from King Cove to Dutch Harbor, Alaska. On board were his wife, Nancy,
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
and a crew of seven. The moon and stars were shining in the clear evening sky,
while Kale and Nancy sat in the wheelhouse enjoying the quiet, a cup of coffee
steaming on the driver’s console.
Kale got up from his chair in order to radio the captain of another boat
proceeding through narrow Baby Pass. As they talked, something caught Kale’s
eye on the radar. “What in the world is that?” he asked thinking the blip was
an electronic anomaly. Within seconds, the icy sea rose from a calm two-foot
chop to become a wall of water—a rogue wave—one so high Kale never saw its
“It sounded like an explosion, a cannon shot, followed by a blood curdling
scream.” The wave tore into the boat, ripping open the superstructure and
curling back the three-inch steel frame as if it were a sardine can.
In the ensuing pandemonium, Kale turned to Nancy and said, "We are not
going to get in that water." He was determined not to abandon ship.
He assessed the situation quickly: they were a half-mile from rocky shore; the
forecastle had a gaping hole with exposed wires; the engineer’s room below
the wheelhouse was stripped of wood, bunks, and door. Exposed heaters had
electrified the freezing water. Chunks of ice were littered everywhere. One
crewmember who had been washed across the engine room was unhurt, but his
hair was a tangle of pink insulation—a detail that they would laugh about years
Kale took charge. He told his crew to manage the gearbox and throttle and
steer the boat manually while he set up radio communications between the
engine room and the wheelhouse. The wave had severed the air and hydraulic
lines for both steering and engine controls. He dispatched others to pump
water and to chain mattresses across holes. They found flashlights, ran hoses,
called to shore, and shoveled ice out of the boat.
In the midst of the bedlam, Nancy saw life rafts floating away from them in the
water—“Look, life rafts!”—without realizing that these were their life rafts,
washed from the roof of the wheelhouse. The world was out of kilter.
The boat survived because the wave hit the vertical bulkhead, and not
amidships. Kale knew there was one way to make it safely out of danger: limp
through the narrow pass, stay away from the rocks, and head for deeper
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
water. “Just keep going,” he remembers thinking. They made it safely onto
Dutch Harbor, the closest port, where they spent a weekend welding, and
then they returned to fishing, their job. Offhandedly, Kale recalls it was “a
good group of guys to have a crisis with.”
Kale admits the Bering Sea “is a helluva place to hang out,” and not surprisingly,
Kale’s boat is “over the top, safety-wise.” He says he’ll “park” his boat when
“the pile of stories gets bigger than the money,” but he’s not ready to leave the
sea yet. “We made it through one. We could make it through anything.”
Sometime later, Kale’s investment counselor warned him about the risks of the
stock market, and how “dangerous” it is. Kale said he could handle it….
Shocking, unpredictable, and potentially catastrophic challenges
Rogue waves are indeed formidable and sensational. Arising without warning
“out of the blue,” they rise up to at least twice the height of normally
occurring wave peaks. Their “roguishness” is a quality of their
unpredictability; however, they are not as rare as is commonly thought. By
some learned estimates, there are at least ten rogue waves boiling away in
the oceans at any moment. And as Kale experienced, they don’t announce
themselves. Even a calm sea warrants watchful care.
For our purposes, a rogue wave is an archetype, not an oceanic phenomenon.
A rogue wave is both an event and a corresponding idea that sheds light on
deep patterns of leadership and organizational behavior. The essence of rogue
waves, then, is three-fold. They are, at once:
Since 9/11, leaders have turned up the dial on readiness. Disaster recovery and
emergency preparedness are parts of any leader’s job. Organizations devote
considerable resources to forecasting, anticipating, predicting, and preparing
for possible disasters. This formal preparedness, though necessary, is never
completely sufficient. The shock of a rogue wave elicits a near-primal
response, one which strips back normal defenses and uncovers what lies
beneath—weaknesses and strengths, tendencies to fight or flee, underlying
motivations and values.
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
Although rogue waves emerge from nowhere, a leader’s deep instinct is to ask
about causes. Leaders are responsible for understanding the “whys” (of an
operation), and the question is a natural one in a crisis. The force of the event
within an organization exerts huge pressure to learn more: Could I have
prevented this? How should we have prepared? Where does fault lie? Leaders
do not cause rogue waves, and though they are responsible for leading within
them, they are not culpable. It is neither realistic nor fair to expect that
leaders will anticipate, and be prepared for, every possible event.
Leaders live in a “both-and” world. They are responsible for organizational
vision, mission, and values, but the drip of daily events can sap energy from
the strategic agenda. A rogue wave event, such as the death of an employee,
the financial meltdown of 2008, Hurricane Katrina, or the Boston Marathon
bombing, refocuses leaders on the larger picture, on bigger questions, on
higher purpose and even on survival itself.
From the leadership stories we have been told, we have begun to see many
types of rogue wave experiences, differing in cause, scope and nature, and we
also discern similarities in how leaders and their organizations emerge from
rogue wave events, for the better… or for worse. We’ve been emotionally
touched and intellectually captured by many stories of integrity, character,
and courage, and through them, we have pieced together a pattern of four
interacting—sequential yet sometimes spiral—leadership phases of a
successfully mastered rogue wave journey.
First and immediately, leaders must face the wave. They respond to the storm
at hand while accepting both expectations of and responsibilities for others.
The energy that their action generates also provides them temporary comfort
and respite from the personal impact of the event.
Stephanie Streeter, CEO of Banta, had been on a three-day backpacking trip in
the wilds of Montana, out of cell phone range. As soon as she returned to
connectivity, she answered a call from her company headquarters in Menasha,
Wisconsin. Unexpectedly, a competitor had launched a hostile takeover bid.
Immediately, she began working the phones while her husband, Ed, piloted the
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
rental car. “Ed, you can help me if you just listen, and as a way to support me
nod if I show anger.”
For the next three months Banta was “in play” as Stephanie and her team
warded off the hostile takeover and found a “white knight” acquirer, realizing
favorable terms for shareholders. But the rogue wave was real, and Banta, as
an independent company, was no more.
Good leaders faced with rogue wave events do not stand aside waiting for
outcomes; they see the damage, realize the impact, and jump into the fray.
They do not quibble or equivocate. They act decisively with minimal
For Rod West, CEO of Entergy in New Orleans, the moment of truth came when
the 17th Street Canal gave way during Hurricane Katrina. Though the electric
utility had recently performed its annual storm drill for a Katrina-like disaster,
no one could have prepared to see whitecap waves rolling down Canal Street.
In his first view of the scene from a helicopter all Rod could see were the roofs
of houses. The pilot who flew him over the flood had just returned from duty
in Iraq; he was fighting back tears. “I’ve seen chaos,” Rod remembers him
saying, “but this is the U.S.!” Rod knew he was “in the middle of an American
saga,” a rogue wave event that would re-shape a city, a region, a nation.
Rod’s job, however, was not to continue to witness the destruction from
above; his responsibility was to restore power to New Orleans, quickly, on the
ground. His immediate task was to call together his crew of 400 and give them
a first-hand report. Barely able to control his emotions, Rod disclosed: “The
city is under water. For most of you, everything you left at home has been
Rod felt the full weight of leadership in that moment—the need to command
authoritatively while being responsible for the lives of his employees. “I cried
with them, but I had to stop, stand up, gather myself together and get up at
the podium and say, here is the plan….” He had to face the wave.
Rod knew that Katrina had delivered a catastrophe. There could be no denying
or delaying, and no looking for blame. As Rod said, “Our lives were turned
upside down, inside out, and ripped from their core.” Katrina had destroyed
the old order—nevertheless, it was time to get to work and build the new.
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
Leaders face the wave, already armed
Neither Stephanie nor Rod considered doing anything but leading. Where
did that fortitude come from?
When the phone rang, Stephanie moved from blistered backpacker to
corporate counter-puncher in a New York minute: “It never occurred to me to
do anything else.” Stephanie is a fierce competitor, an Olympic-level
basketball player from Stanford long accustomed to delivering wins; her
favorite saying is “promises made, promises kept.” Her persistence developed
early; as a small child she was the “question machine” in her family, driven by
intense curiosity. As a leader, these qualities of competitiveness, persistence
and curiosity serve her well.
Rod, a native of New Orleans, was a member of Notre Dame’s football team
under renowned coach Lou Holtz, where he collected an NCAA championship
ring and developed a “psychological well.” He believes that, “Adversity
reveals character—it doesn’t just build or breed it.” Perhaps more important
to Rod than even his lessons on the gridiron, however, is a message he
absorbed as a young child. His second grade teacher wrote a note on his report
card saying he possessed “a leadership presence that belied his age.” Rod has
seen himself as a leader ever since.
Facing a rogue wave alters a leader’s internal world, permanently
A rogue wave sweeps over an organization quickly, but it leaves a lasting
impact. The experience becomes embedded within the leader’s memory and
subconscious. In our interviews, experiences were recalled as vividly as if they
had happened yesterday. Some of the stories had rarely been told, yet they
poured out without hesitation, often accompanied by audible sighs and long
silences as the narrator recalled the intense experience of the event.
Russ Laine has had a career as a police officer and as chief of police. Years ago
a young woman on his force, a dispatcher who was in a troubled relationship
with one of the department’s detectives, killed herself with a service revolver.
It was a devastating event for the department and the entire community, and
it was the turning point in Russ’s life.
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
In his loss and dismay, Russ took ownership of what he could control
including his personal demons. After years of abusing alcohol, he chose to
become sober in response to this event, and his career has taken off. Russ
was elected President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a
high honor, and from that platform he advocated for substance abuse
programs for police officers.
Russ lives with the raw memory of the suicide in his department. Recently, he
said, “I heard someone talking on the radio about the grieving process. You
never totally get over it and that’s true. You handle it in different ways but
you will always remember the time, the event, the pain. I can’t forget that
young woman.”
Some form of change in a leader’s view of the world is core to the rogue wave
experience. What was previously assumed to be reality will not be returning.
Easy and automatic processing of events is suspended. Conscious thinking now
bears a burden of making sense of things that were once taken for granted.
There is a new normal—and it is exhausting.
Post-wave, leaders must face the new normal. The alternative is to deny it,
stuff it, duck it, marginalize it, power through it, or to use a word we heard
often in interviews, “compartmentalize” it. This may be necessary in the
moment, but if the internal impact of the event is not examined, it may
become a missed chance for personal growth. At its unexamined worst, the
wave may eventually bring a leader down.
A catastrophe and the ensuing trauma that is its legacy remind us
uncomfortably of our mortality. The event is real, and the terror experienced in
the event is real. But for a leader, there is an added dimension because it
comes with the job. While engaging in rapid, responsible, and righteous efforts
to cope with the aftermath of a rogue wave, leaders must make sense of what
happened while providing hope about what lies ahead. They must be genuine
and whole, striking the right balance between strength and vulnerability, if
their organization is to recover, heal, and move on.
Crisis changes the terms under which leaders lead and exist. They must face
the wave and respond as leaders, and as human beings.
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
Soon, leaders seek a safe harbor. When a rogue wave swamps a boat,
bulkheads are battered, lifeboats are torn from their stays, and the compass is
rendered useless. The world is topsy. One Atlantic fisherman told us of a wave
that swamped a lighthouse; the boundaries of land and sea were violated, the
source of guidance obscured. Leaders have instinctive reactions that help them
perform in the moment, but the process of recovery and renewal is a long one,
and they need a safety network for support, sympathy, and solace.
The normal channels for self-expression are narrowed during an emergency;
leaders cannot cry on the shoulder of just anyone, just anytime. They are
expected to show just the right amount of resolve, optimism, and empathy,
without becoming a “stone statue,” as one of the leaders we interviewed
remarked. They know better than to seek solace by throwing themselves on the
very people they lead. This is not to say that leaders cannot express distress,
shed a tear, or offer their own witness to the pain, but first and foremost, they
must be there for others. Their circle of friends and colleagues plays an
important, if private, role.
The helpful helper has an explicit role to play
For helpers, intimates in the network to whom the leader turns, there is an
explicit role. The helpful helper is not there to fix things. The task is not to
do something for you, but to be there with you. The leader can be affirmed
in her sense of the crisis while being reassured about her reactions. Helpers
do not pander to leaders but corroborate their realities and acknowledge the
heavy responsibilities that come with the job.
A helper for a leader can be a spouse, a boss, or a trusted colleague. When
Steve Piano was VP of Human Resources at First Data in New York, he received
the kind of middle-of-the-night phone call every HR person dreads. “Steve,
there’s been an employee homicide or suicide in the parking lot. Can you
come right down?”
Immediately he went through a mental checklist and made all the right calls,
calm under pressure, while feeling anger, sadness, and empathy. The very next
night he decompressed with a trusted co-worker who “talked him through it.”
They were used to helping others and now they were helping each other.
Leaders need existential confirmation
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
In the upheaval of the rogue wave, leaders can lose track of their own
coordinates. Family, friends, and trusted colleagues can provide helpful help—
not advice, or even comfort, but reassurance that they are not damaged, lost
or alone.
Russ Laine, the police chief mentioned above, agrees that at such times a
person has an existential need: “It’s good for me to talk about these things. You
get to cast yourself as a main character.” Martha Johnson’s story is about a raw
panic attack that she had weeks after a public scandal and the loss of her
public service career. She was at home reading email and for a moment she
thought some important legal correspondence had been deleted.
I remember my breath shortened and I started to cry. Pretty soon I was
doubled over, fighting to breathe. All I could say to my husband was
What else do they want from me? How perfect do I have to be?
He didn’t say a thing. I remember he just grabbed me and held me. It
had the effect of anchoring me. It assured me that I was real, not some
stick person in the headlines. Slowly I calmed down and became myself
Her husband had supplied a safe harbor.
Phase Three: TELL THE TALE
Crucially, leaders tell their tale. Leaders are storytellers-in-chief, and now
they have new stories to create and to share. They begin to map the upheaval
against their pre-wave leadership stories and digest what happened. They
“author” and in so doing “authorize” new narratives—for themselves and for
their organizations, and as a result they enhance their authority. As leaders
responsible for setting context and providing direction, they share with others.
Leaders give purpose to organizations through storytelling
Leaders have a role as “chief storytellers” for their organizations. They
fashion the strategy and value proposition for the organization and
communicate these ideas through stories. Story-tellers help the organization
remember its history, they take stock of how things stand today, and they
invite hope for the future.
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
Leaders find themselves in that role because of their particular large view,
positioned to see the full scope of the organization, and to see the place their
organization occupies in the world. Their job is to interpret that unique story.
What happened? Where are we now? What do we need to do next? The story
might be told at least partially with numbers, graphs, and slides, but without
reference to people, plot, and passion, the organization will not fully benefit
from the story. Storytelling is an important leadership competency.
Rogue waves create the need for new stories
When a rogue wave hits, the world changes. A new story is needed to make
sense of what has happened and to move forward. In the wake of a crisis,
leaders must begin the work of incorporating the event into the organizational
narrative. Leaders cannot turn back events, but they can take charge of the
story. They can put the trauma into context and restore meaning. In some cases
this requires a complete rewriting of the organization’s saga.
When Steve Denne stepped in as the COO at Heifer International in 2008, he
thought he was joining a growing organization. Then when the financial
collapse began on Wall Street and spread through the economy, philanthropic
giving shrank. Heifer was awash in financial concerns.
Reacting to the crisis required creating a new storyline. Plenty, abundance,
and growth were no longer workable tenets. Steve led the senior team in
three rounds of contingency conversations during which they progressively
developed a story about the future:
We are in an unprecedented situation. We don’t know where the
bottom is. We will suppose until we know more. There will be
hardship. We will adjust.
Leaders have new leadership stories
Leaders’ rogue wave stories are leadership stories intended to have a 360degree impact. They can benefit all who hear them, and they can also benefit
the one who does the telling. The plot is recursive: meaning is made for all,
and for one, simultaneously.
But just telling “the facts,” or avoiding saying much for fear of making things
worse, will in fact make things worse. Leaders must lead! That maxim digs into
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
the importance of modeling and exhibiting courage, and of engaging others.
Courtney Wilson is Director of the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, the
finest collection of historic railway artifacts in the country. On February 16,
2003, a rogue wave event hit. The roof of the museum’s roundhouse collapsed
under the weight of two feet of snow, causing damage to beloved railway
antiques and threatening the life of the museum itself. It was devastating news
in the global rail-fan community.
“No disaster plan on earth says how you will handle emotions,” Courtney says.
He wept, privately, a tremendous amount in the aftermath. The trauma was
both organizational and personal.
As it happened, Courtney was scheduled to deliver a keynote address at a
conference of museum directors two days after the roof collapse. He
wondered whether he would be able to say anything at all, but he stepped up
to the podium, threw away his prepared speech, and spoke directly from the
heart. The story of his wrecked emotions merged with details of wrecked
roofing and rolling stock.
Courtney’s talk was poignant and moving. By exercising the courage to be
vulnerable with his peers, Courtney began the long journey back to restore his
world. Along the way, Courtney found a broader stage for his leadership. He
has shared his story of how hard it is to manage emotional reactions in a crisis
more than 250 times in professional meetings. He is now being asked to lend a
hand to other museums facing emergency or even closure; his story has
become a business school case study. Courtney’s storytelling cleared a path
ahead and helped him reimagine his own leadership.
Hard as it is, leaders have to take measure of both personal and organizational
trauma, and they have to go public. Their leadership depends upon narrating
the organization’s new story while speaking their own. Who could truly tell the
story of a massive external change outside without reflecting internal changes?
Steve Denne at Heifer comments that in the wake of crisis, “All eyes are
on you. So, how you behave has multiplier impact—good or bad.”
This is not to say that the leaders can immediately reboot their stories. The
stories won’t emerge completely or with full clarity on the spot or on
demand. Leaders must also go through a process—often a visible one—to
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
weave their new leadership story. Yet, ultimately, leaders earn a new level of
trust through their rogue wave storytelling. They stand up for the
organization and call it to its full potential.
Creating the organization’s new story does even more than establishing
meaning in the wake of crisis. The storyteller-in-chief invites the organization
to new authenticity when the organization’s story resonates from the depths
of the storyteller.
The new story expands the leader’s world
One consequence of building a new story from a rogue wave event is that
leaders improve their field of vision. Staring into disaster reveals new
realities—a deeper sense of responsibility, humility, and even destiny. People
and events gain dimension. Leaders gain comfort with “black swans” as a
category of possibility. This larger strategic perspective is a true gift.
Yusufi Vali is the Executive Director of the 1,300-member Islamic Center of
Boston, the largest such organization in the metropolitan area. He had
previously been on a prestigious academic career path but had felt the call to
support his religious community, a career choice that hints at his willingness to
be led by larger purpose.
When the bombs exploded near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon,
the entire nation was horrified. Three days later, when the suspects were
identified as Muslims, the Islamic community of Boston felt a second wave of
The Muslims of Boston were suddenly thrust into an international news event,
and spokespersons would need to be identified. The Imam would speak for the
Islamic Center, but there was no one to speak for the separate Cambridge
Mosque, across the river, where one of the accused bombers had attended; it
was too small to afford public relations staff. The community elders turned to
Yusufi to be its spokesperson.
Yusufi was consumed with self-doubt, feeling unprepared to play this assigned
role. “What am I doing here? This is not what I signed up for. What does this
mean for my career and family?” To find his way, he did a “combo” of things,
including talking with his wife, close friends, media experts, and a board
member who kept saying: “God is calling you to take this on. You have the
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
potential to take this on,” which instilled precious confidence.
After several days he reached a personal threshold, and in an “alone moment,”
he “had a conversation with himself,” and got clarity. He remembered his
larger purpose, to serve God, and then he was ready: “I own it. I am going to
take this on.” With this shift, Yusufi enlarged his leadership and along the way,
transformed the story he had to tell.
Yusufi faced the microphones and the hundred reporters who had shown up
at the Mosque and spoke to the world of his community’s grief, solidarity,
and deep loyalty to Boston. Previously his work had been about building a
faith community. Now his work was to build a larger community of citizens
and neighbors.
The media were divided into two camps. The right wing press questioned
whether the suspected bombers had ever attended the Mosque, insinuating
complicity of the Muslim community in perfidy. The left wing press asked
how the Muslim community was coping. Was there a backlash? Could there
be a hero in the congregation? The implication was that the Muslim
community was to be pitied.
Yusufi rejected the right wing narrative of conspiracy and the left wing
narrative of victimhood. His community story was at once his leadership story,
born directly from the crisis. Muslims were not “the other”; he was unwilling
to allow the Boston Muslim community to “other themselves” away from
society; and he would rise above his insecurities and stand up to the media in
order to be true to his beliefs. He would profess a story of Muslim solidarity
with Boston.
“I imagine myself now as part of the city. When I speak publicly now I think
very carefully about how to speak about being a Bostonian and not a Muslim
other.” Yusufi Vali has emerged from his rogue wave wiser, tougher, larger.
Leaders are storytellers-in-chief. Finding a voice while shaping the new
agenda, and incorporating the trauma while speaking deeply of one’s own
shock and dismay, are the stuff of leadership.
Along the way, leaders change their course. Inevitably, new leadership stories
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
add depth and breadth to their view of the voyage. Leaders grow curious
about broader horizons, become energized by fresh breezes, and are moved
by shifting currents. They have new confidence. They ask: Where to next?
Some rogue waves were catalogued as forgettable, one-time events, or as
ghoulishly entertaining aberrations as if recorded on a YouTube clip. Some
leaders shrugged off events as having no lasting impact or consequence.
Most, however, claimed their experiences had great impact. Lives, fortunes,
policies, and communities changed. Leaders themselves changed.
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Rogue waves can be opportunities for
transformation, or they can be trials without meaning. Three stories we
heard revealed positive impact, post-rogue wave.
They can do more
Organizations improve when leaders feel more confident in their purpose. In
this story, the leader knew her organization was capable of more than it had
Patrice Nelson is the Executive Director of United Ministries of Durham, North
Carolina, a community shelter and food pantry. An M.I.T. graduate and an
ordained minister, Patrice moved from Philadelphia to take the job, having
just been through a divorce and a fire in which she lost all her possessions.
The new opportunity “felt like a calling.”
It turned out to be a rogue wave experience.
On her first day on the job, she learned that the organization was running a
$267,000 deficit with a budget that would soon increase it to $500,000. She
discovered unethical behaviors, unprofessional attitudes, unaligned policies,
and instances of unfair treatment. In confronting these problems she became a
lightning rod for criticism and accusation, including charges of racism. She was
given a 360-degree review by her Board which was very positive but contained
painful feedback from her staff. “I don’t like it,” she remembers thinking,
“but it won’t kill me.”
She held on and stepped up. Patrice corrected past practices that had allowed
people to live in a shelter for years and years. “They can do more,” she
believed. Patrice replaced the old story of her agency, “three hots and a cot,”
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
with a goal to end homelessness in Durham, all together. The impact of her
leadership is remarkable. Now with a new story, new staff, new rules, new
programs, and increased private donations, UMD is healthy and growing in
community service and influence.
“All people were created to do great things,” Patrice believes—and practices as
a leader.
I’m stronger than before
In the context of organizations and collective rogue wave experiences, a
leader can find new depths and abilities.
John Kim was President of New York Life’s Investments Group and Chief
Investment Officer in 2008. Ten days before the Lehman Brothers collapse, he
saw “something” coming. On a business call with bankers in Madrid, he had the
sudden insight that things “were going to be really bad.” A rogue wave was
gathering force.
Yet, he was wrong. He had underestimated both the duration and the
extent of the coming financial crash. As the clouds grew ever darker, John,
an analytical person, felt something unusual—deep vulnerability. His anxiety
rose until it was as high as it had ever been in his life. Responsible for a
quarter of a trillion dollars in assets at New York Life as well as his own
family’s security, he blamed himself as an investor, a father, and a leader.
“I have not done my job professionally or personally,” he told himself.
Shaken by the fast moving events, he knew his organization would be even
more distressed. Yet he knew he needed to manage this crisis as a team. He
thought of his father, a Presbyterian minister, who would call congregational
meetings when there were problems to be solved. This was not a time for
heroic, independent actions.
John convened his portfolio managers and scheduled frequent, collective
dialogue. Together they absorbed, collaborated, and responded to the crisis.
It was a war-room model, and John learned first-hand the value of solidarity.
New York Life’s investment portfolio has recovered, and John has emerged
John’s experience of leading through the rogue wave helped him to master
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
new dimensions of his leadership. While his culture at work is still tough,
fast, and hard-charging, he is now a “more thoughtful, and a kinder, gentler
person.” His maturing leadership has led to greater responsibilities and
promotion to Vice Chairman.
“When people go through traumas, they can become stronger, better
human beings,” according to John.
This is my calling
The power of a rogue wave event is that it washes over both organization
and leader. The more profound and deep the leader’s journey, the stronger
the probability for transformation for both institution and person.
Vincent Strully is the CEO and founder of the internationally renowned New
England Center for Children, a Massachusetts-based school for autism. NECC had
always been a very good school, and Vincent enjoyed his leadership role—the
school was his creation, after all. In truth, however, he knew he had reached a
point where he was just cruising along. Then came a rogue wave. In the storm’s
wake, Vincent changed and so did NECC, accelerating to the top of its class.
On a Friday afternoon, Vincent got a call that changed everything. A popular
student had died of what was later determined to be a rare medical disorder,
but his death had occurred while the boy was being restrained by NECC
teachers in order to limit his self-injurious behavior.
The event was shocking, tragic, and, for Vincent, it was “life-changing.” He
always knew himself to be capable, and he “always knew he had this kind of
responsibility,” but this event forced him to analyze his whole life and “look at
everything.” The jolt “plugged him into the school” in a new way. He stepped
into the crisis, handling it with sensitivity and care. He emerged with the
confidence that he could handle almost anything.
Much of what NECC is today had its origin in that rogue wave. The school’s
reputation, its growth at home and abroad, and its special standing in the
world of autism are results of Vincent’s ferocious new passion. And as a matter
of routine, NECC practices CALM protocols, techniques designed to de-escalate
behavioral crises and maintain safety while avoiding physical confrontation.
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
Vincent says, “This is what I was meant to do.”
Leadership is an invitation to transformation on the back of a rogue wave. It’s
not possible to predict what will happen or when. What matters most is
whether leaders respond well in the moment, whether they take care of
themselves while caring for others, whether they make use of their story and
the story of the trauma, and whether they emerge with a larger view of
themselves as leaders, able to serve new and greater purposes.
Questions for Reflection and Conversation
1. What is the role of a leader’s values during a rogue wave event? Can you
describe that role using a nautical term such as rudder, hull, ballast, etc.?
2. Does having a strong sense of purpose, either as a leader or an
organization, increase chances of survival and success following a rogue
wave event—and if so, how does it work?
3. If you were asked to design an organizational workshop for emotional
emergency preparedness, what would you include?
4. The novelist and writer John Barth said, “The story of your life is not your
life; it’s your story.” How does this apply to rogue wave events?
5. Some leaders experience post-rogue wave growth. How would you expect
them to be different?
Harry Hutson ( is a leadership coach and consultant
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014
living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, whose clients include startups,
multinationals, and nonprofits. Previously he served in learning
management roles at Cummins, Avery Dennison and Devon Energy. He is coauthor of Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations, and Putting Hope to
Martha Johnson ( is a leadership speaker and writer
who lives in Annapolis, Maryland. Her 35-year career in business and
government included executive positions with SRA International and Computer
Sciences Corporation. She held a Senate confirmed appointment as the
Administrator of the US General Services Administration under President
Obama. Her most recent book is On My Watch: Leadership, Innovation, and
Personal Resilience.
Copyright Harry Hutson and Martha Johnson 2014