At the recent National League of Cities Leadership Summit in Orlando, I had the privilege of listening to an excellent presentation by Lt. Rick Ubinas of Tampa’s Police Department on leadership in chaotic situations. The typical application for this kind of leadership is a disaster or potential disaster of indeterminate magnitude, origin or complexity. Think an unfolding terrorist attack, a massive storm, a huge chemical or nuclear leak . . .
Or an unfolding mass shooting. Or a national epidemic of gun violence.
One of the most important concepts in dealing with chaotic situations is to accept that one is not going to know everything one might wish to know. Indeed, one might not know much at all.
Another is to accept that events are moving quickly. If one does not act with considerable speed, what is already chaotic is likely to become catastrophic.
So what does one do?
Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, what leaders in this field urge is action. Act to learn. Act to try to get ahead of events. Act to instill confidence that help is on the way.
Understand that this recommendation means acting with full awareness that one might be wrong, that actions taken might be precisely the wrong actions, simply because one does not, and cannot, know what the effect of one’s actions will be. That is the essential nature of a chaotic situation.
Of course, given the high level of uncertainty about conditions and potential consequences of actions, one doesn’t simply take any action. One must find a way to make smart decisions when “smart” cannot possibly mean “well-informed.”
The actions one pursues are carefully calibrated to the uncertainty and the potential risks. The term for the right kind of action under these conditions is called “safe-to-fail.” One chooses actions that might help, but almost certainly won’t make the situation markedly worse. They are measured but swift actions, actions that are designed both to address the problem as it is understood at the moment and to help reveal more about the situation so that, with careful consideration, one can move from a chaotic situation to a complex but comprehensible problem that can be addressed more effectively.
No one I know thinks the number of deaths from gun violence is okay. Rather, I think we agree that it is a serious problem. What we disagree about is what can and should be done about it, and who should do it. Some believe the answer is more guns, so that every gathering place in our communities is a “hardened” target of a sort. Others believe the answer is restricting gun ownership and portability. Still other proposals involve finding other ways to harden certain targets, or working to meet the mental health needs of the underserved, or restoring our broken families, or connecting the disconnected to our communities, or even wrestling with what may well be our culture’s glorification of violence . . . all manner of other responses.
I’ll confess to having my preferred options, which are evident to anyone who has read my posts on gun violence in the past. But I’ll give that all up in favor of one simple agreement: that all of us, gun rights advocates, gun control advocates, libertarians, conservatives, liberals . . . everyone agrees that we must not shrug our shoulders and say there’s nothing we can do about the mass shootings, the black-on-black shootings, the suicides, the family violence, the accidental deaths that are associated with guns.
Given the chaos, the next step should be carefully calibrated actions that, if they fail, are unlikely to make things much worse, but might make things better, and almost certainly will help us learn more about how best to tackle the problem. One of the best such options: empowering cities with the authority and the resources to pilot test innovative strategies for addressing the constellation of issues implicated in gun violence. The overall risks are relatively low; the potential to learn what might work (and what won’t), and why, great.
Some potential solutions only make sense at a state or federal level; I recognize that. But many, and many of the most innovative, could be implemented at the local level. They also could be implemented swiftly . . . another defining feature of a prudent response to chaos.
Cities are the untapped resource for tackling our society’s most complex and even chaotic challenges. Give us a chance. No one cares more than we do. It is the police chiefs and mayors and councilmembers who are compelled by these tragedies to hold strained press conferences with pictures of deceased neighbors, friends, even family members as a backdrop.
And if our citizens don’t like our approach, it is much easier to remove a councilmember in a city of 5,000 than a member of Congress or a state legislator. We’ll be responsive; we have to be.
And maybe . . . just maybe, we’ll begin to reduce the number of families who will go to bed knowing they will never see their loved ones again.