Without Support You Will Fall

History provides lessons for teams. Let’s take the time to explore a few of them. This post explores patterns that I see resulting from the interaction of ability, demands and support. Let me explicitly state what I mean by those variables –

  • Ability is the capacity to do something through talent and skill.
  • Demands are the problems that must be solved or managed.
  • Support is active help and encouragement.

The historical cases below deal with individual leaders, but each leader represent the many people who worked with the leader to achieve some end. Please note that the cases only refer to the point-in-time referenced.

Smith1  The Skilled Pattern (Margaret Thatcher, 1979-1990)

The Skilled Pattern (Margaret Thatcher, 1979-1990)

Margaret Thatcher skillfully led Britain as its Prime Minister from 1979-1990. She was more than able — she was a brilliant organizer, a first-class speaker and utterly focused.

When she became Prime Minister in 1979, the demands on her were formidable and included nationalized industries that couldn’t compete with their global counterparts; a history of bitter labor strikes against nationalized industries; a burdensome and growing tax on the private parts of the economy; potential loss of supporters as she made changes; and the Cold War.

Thatcher addressed these demands by privatizing nationalized industries, facing off against the powerful trade unions, reforming the tax structure, gaining new supporters by selling public housing to its renters, and supporting the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

I think Thatcher’s personality shone through when she said, “Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s when you’ve had everything to do, and you’ve done it.”

What lessons can teams learn from Margaret Thatcher’s experience as Prime Minister? Know your mission. Execute it skillfully. Constantly be looking for ways to gain new supporters.

The Swamped Pattern (Michael D. Brown, 2003-2005)

The Swamped Pattern (Michael D. Brown, 2003-2005)

Michael D. Brown was the Deputy Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who was swamped during the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005. Brown appears to have had virtually zero background in emergency management prior to his appointment as Deputy Director of FEMA in 2003, the bulk of his career having been spent practicing law and as Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association.

Up until Hurricane Katrina, FEMA had been considered a model federal agency because of its successful responses to past disasters such as the Midwestern floods of 1993, the Northridge earthquake of 1994, and the Oklahoma City terrorist attacks of 1995. When the demands from Katrina became known, FEMA’s response was considered by many, especially by the residents who were caught in the path of its destruction, an utter failure.

Email messages sent by Brown during the disaster tell something about his ability. He wrote, “Can I quit now? Can I go home;” and “trapped (as FEMA head) … please rescue me.” I can’t imagine any circumstances in which Margaret Thatcher would have ever sent similar messages. Fewer than 45 days after sending the email message, swamped and resigned, Brown quit his Deputy Director position.

Did Brown have all the support necessary to respond satisfactorily to the demands caused by Hurricane Katrina? No, I don’t think he did. The organization of federal emergency agencies had change considerably after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Regardless, I think his poor ability eroded the support he could have had and prevented him from maximizing the support he did have.

What lessons can teams learn from Michael Brown’s Hurricane Katrina experience? Know your ability. If your demands outstrip your ability, find more support or find a different mission.


In my next post I’ll introduce a few more historical examples and ask for your input on the differences between their experiences balancing ability, demands, and support.

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