Making an Opportunity out of a Crisis

21 September 2007 Robert L Dilenschneider

There's always some crisis or other going on either in the world or in our personal lives. Robert L Dilenschneider asks the question: How do we deal with that crisis?

The question has become more acute because we've never been in an era when the world, the country, business sectors, families and social institutions have been more challenged than they are today. We may be living in one of the most uncertain periods in history. The ability to survive in a gravely problematic time is critical.

Events are going to unfold that we neither expect nor anticipate. Many political and business leaders, among others, assert that perhaps the greatest looming challenge is the rift between the Muslim world and the West. That is certainly a dangerous development, but the bigger challenge is the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots.

"We may be living in one of the most uncertain periods in history."

The World Bank estimates that nearly two billion of the world's six billion-plus people now live on the equivalent of less than a dollar a day. Meanwhile, Wall Street is paying out annual bonuses of $40m to $50m to some CEOs. Some traders took home $100m in 2006. We are going to have to find meaningful ways to eliminate such huge disparities and global poverty in our lifetime. That means finding opportunity in a genuine and very serious crisis.


The singer Bono found just such an opportunity. As the lead singer of the rock band U2, Bono has all the money and adulation he could possibly want. He decided that global poverty is too overwhelming to take on all at once, and so he began to focus on Africa, the poorest continent. He persuaded Paul O'Neal, the Alcoa CEO who was then President George W Bush's treasury secretary, to accompany him to Africa.

That trip generated a lot of publicity, as Bono knew it would. He knew that there was an opportunity to get positive action by drawing attention to Africa's humanitarian crisis. Sure enough, many of the wealthy nations of the world soon pledged to increase investment, developmental aid and technical assistance.

Africa's problems, of course, are so enormous that it will take many decades for the people to attain prosperity, but instead of joining the global chorus of despair, Bono spotted an opportunity for engendering change in Africa and acted on it. He made videos that could be downloaded easily on personal computers; he cut records and made podcasts. Bono employed all the tools that modern technology offers to a determined celebrity with a cause.


This sort of action takes perspicacity. However, most people tend to wallow in misery when confronted with a personal crisis. A man once found himself out of his high- profile CEO job. He wasn't part of 'the club' any longer. Invitations to A-list parties suddenly dried up. He began to develop palpitations. His blood pressure shot up.

"Most people tend to wallow in misery when confronted with a personal crisis."

He was encouraged to let go. Because his company's decision to let him go was irreversible, he should pause and cleanse his mind of the trauma, difficult as that would be. He was encouraged to do deep breathing exercises. "Find a way to control your metabolism and your body, so that you are able to adapt and adjust to this turbulent time and be able to deal with it".

The man joined a yoga class. One evening, as he was preparing for a lesson, it occurred to him that there might be a business opportunity there. Yoga had not yet taken off in the US. He launched an enterprise that, in time, included successful yoga franchises. He found an opportunity in his personal crisis.


Another situation where power players have displayed their skills involved the city of Indianapolis. Zane Todd, who ran the Indianapolis Power & Light Company, needed to develop jobs and expedite economic growth in the city.

The development plan involved such tactics as bringing in the prestigious Hudson Institute think tank and getting the Baltimore Colts to move to Indianapolis. All that happened, happily.

But before the plan could be implemented, some sticky problems arose. At the time, Indianapolis had an active chapter of the racist Ku Klux Klan. There were race-related employment issues. And at the same time, the city's old-boy network did not embrace newcomers to the city.


How to move on these difficult issues? The company involved Gene Pulliam, publisher of a chain of newspapers, including the Indianapolis Star and the Arizona Republican Gazette. He was probably the most powerful man in the city. We called a meeting of the movers and shakers at the Columbia Club, one of the swankiest in town. But it quickly turned into an angry session, with many defensively denying the extent or the importance of the problems.

"Learn to recognise a crisis and turn it into an opportunity."

Pulliam sat silently during the heated exchanges. Suddenly, he stood up and walked to the door, announcing: "I'm going to have to leave the room now, and I'm not going to come back because it's clear you don't want to deal with reality. Unless you are willing to accept this plan, I'm leaving for good!"

He started to open the door. Then someone ran across the room and said: "Mr Pulliam, don't leave," to a gathering round of applause. And where before there had been nothing but strident discord, the mood was suddenly transformed and the plan to rejuvenate the city was basically embraced.

What happened was that the real power player, Gene Pulliam, never showed his hand until the last moment, and then acted decisively. He was able to project strength and determination and understood what the plan could do to transform Indianapolis. He recognised a crisis at that meeting and also saw an opportunity – which he grasped, to the benefit of the entire community.