Five Questions with Juliette Kayyem

July 25, 2022
  • Private Banking
In “Five Questions,” Juliette Kayyem, national security expert and author, shares guidance on how we can better prepare ourselves to live in a world with more frequent disasters.

1. You talk about learning how to “fail safely” in your new book, “The Devil Never Sleeps.” Tell us what this means.

In the book, I explore centuries of disasters and provide leaders with universal lessons that we can learn from. We tend to think of each disaster as a random fluke, but there is a lot of familiarity and connective tissue that links them. If we can learn to fail safely – to take those lessons of disaster management gleaned from both success and horror stories – we can measure success by whether things were “less bad” because of our investments.

2. What are some initial steps we can take to start preparing for a world with more frequent disasters?

During the book tour, someone asked me what the difference was between being paranoid and being prepared. My answer? Perfection. You don’t need to be perfect. You don’t need to prepare for every contingency. But there are basic investments that I outline that can provide lessons to leadership on the corporate, board, institutional and personal level. These are lessons from my own career in this space and from history.

The first of these lessons is the title of the first chapter: “Get Your Head Around It.” In other words, begin to view disaster and crisis management as standard operating procedure. Embed emergency and crisis response into the fabric of your company or institution.

Second, have very strong situational awareness capacity. I’ve found leaders often make bad decisions simply because they are unaware of what’s going on, rather than through malice or maleficence. You can take steps to change that.

Third, avoid the “last line of defense” crutch. Many institutions build security and safety features with the thought that one line of defense will stop bad things from happening. That’s never the case. It puts a lot of pressure on that crutch, and it keeps you from thinking about what would happen, what you would do to make things less bad and how to design your business or institution around that.

3. How should business leaders rethink their strategies to prepare for disaster?

I believe strongly that architecture is, in many ways, the foundation for preparedness. As I described in the Harvard Business Review article from earlier in 2022, how companies structure their safety and security is essential to knowing how prepared they are.1

A lot of times, chief security officers, chief information security officers and chief medical officers (a new addition in the age of COVID-19) aren’t aligned. Their roles and responsibilities are often disjointed. The book title purposely uses the word “devil” because I’m not interested in what the disaster may be. I’m just going to assume there’s a disruption to the system, so you want to make sure there’s alignment across these areas.

Even if you have alignment, have you made that security accessible to you? We talk a lot about accessibility in terms of preparedness. A leader has to be interested, engage with and invest in their safety and security team even if that is not the reason they became a business leader in the first place.

4. It seems like there’s a middle ground between ignoring disaster and becoming doomsday preppers. How can we be proactive without constantly living in fear?

I believe in human agency. In disaster and crisis management, we have done a bad job at showing people what they can do to limit harm in a world in which it is going to be impossible to keep the devil at bay. We need to describe what those skills are, as I do in my book, and what people can do to prepare for when the bad thing happens so that they can minimize the harm. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t seek perfection. I know bad things are going to happen. And in that way, I think the book reflects our lived experience. We have to own it in many ways and learn to move forward.

5. What advice would you give your younger self?

The title of my book comes from a woman who was involved in the recovery efforts for Joplin, Missouri, after it was hit by a tornado. I asked her how she was so optimistic, and she told me that there were going to be tornados in Missouri again and that the devil never sleeps. But the second part of her sentence was the best part: “But he only wins if we don’t do better next time.” We have to be as optimistic as that woman.

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1 Kayyem, Juliette. “Design Your Organization to Withstand Future Disasters.” Harvard Business Review, March 28, 2022.

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