Cohort Reflections


Leading in Crisis

Nathan Hickling

Community Impact Officer and Executive Assistant to the COO, Ventura County Community Foundation

Each member of our cohort is required to blog or “reflect” on an individual session, and my assumption was that most of my fellow cohort bloggers would share about our time at the Situation Room Experience at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The oppositional part of me was determined to focus on other parts of our amazing day. We did so much - including hearing from Ventura County Public Works, Calleguas Municipal Water District, , the Central Coastal Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) and Supervisor Linda Parks who discussed Ventura County’s SOAR (Save Open Space & Agricultural Resources) initiatives. After going through the Situation Room, I realized why the experience is so impactful – it is at its core a social experiment. Each of us assigned to different leadership roles during a simulated crisis had limited time to organize, communicate, and react, with only partial information and a few guiding parameters in an environment that became predictably chaotic.
The experience made me realize that the human mind is just not designed to listen to others in time-sensitive, chaotic situations, such as those that arise from crisis. We consider our own needs and perspectives first and move outward to try to convince others to see our point of view, stressing urgency to address the issues that impact us individually before those that impact the group. If we cannot get others to listen, we begin to act on our own. Chains of command begin to break down as we swiftly make decisions to avoid delays brought on by attempting to reach consensus. This is, of course, the opposite of what should be happening in a crisis, when collective action is crucial to mitigating damage.
This isn’t a criticism – I think it’s probably a result of the way our minds evolved to solve problems when resources were scarce, and survival was the top goal. Some of the crises we face in a modern democracy, like a hypothetical attack on the president, are only indirectly related to physical survival, or not at all. Many crises are, like drought, housing insecurity, and disease outbreaks. When facing big issues like these – and we will even more as climate change reshapes our shared world – we need to act as a group, and that requires overcoming our instincts and listening to each other, especially to those who are disproportionately impacted and least likely to be heard.
I feel so much more confident about Ventura County’s plan to handle prolonged drought after hearing from our public works experts, but I also now recognize that every time we run into a crisis like this, we are running an experiment.

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