Late Wednesday night, an official report was released on the Virigina Tech shootings placing blame on university officials for failing to communicate the impending danger in a timely and efficient manner.
While I’m sure there will be much debate on whether the horrific event that took the lives of 33 people could have been prevented, I’d like to dedicate this space to analyzing the response by Virginia Tech’s president Charles Steger to the condemning report.
One particular statement from Steger stands out quite ominously:
The crime was unprecedented in its cunning and murderous results. And yet it happened here. To say that something could have been prevented is certainly not to say that it would have been. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that this tragedy, horrific as it is, could have been worse.
We can dissect this reaction into 3 separate statements (which Steger conveniently put into 3 separate sentences).
Sentence/Statement 1: This has never happened before, so how could we have been prepared? I find it odd that in a post-911 world, anyone can pass this off as a viable reason for failure. The U.S. had never been attacked by passenger planes, but Giuliani didn’t throw his hands up and say, “Wow, we never saw this coming. We’ll just have to give up.” Contingency planning. Leaders do it. Managers make excuses for not doing it.
Sentence/Statement 2: It’s not like we could have made a difference anyway, so why worry about it? This excuse usually follows the “we didn’t see it coming” excuse. As a leader, you take the 20/20 hindsight rule and you systematically revise your behavior and decisions to fix the situation, and then put processes in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Managers simply do the latter. The problem is, if a manager claims he/she couldn’t have done any better, it doesn’t matter how many new processes go into place, the result will remain the same. It’s the difference between building a learning and response system, and merely recreating the wheel with every crisis.
Sentence/Statement 3: “Hey, look on the bright side, it could’ve been worse.” It doesn’t matter how gravely you describe the tragedy, candy-coating doesn’t change the fact that you failed. I’m shocked that Stegel actually got away with making this statement. I can only imagine the collective cringe by public relations representatives at VT when he said it (Yes, I’m giving PR the benefit of the doubt, because no one in their right mind would try to sell the “it could have been worse” argument to an angry mob calling for your resignation).
In this one quote alone Steger illustrated the difference between leading and managing. Leadership is a cycle of learning, thinking, anticipating, planning, decision-making and learning again. Management is making decisions as things come. One is about vision, the other about doing what’s worked before and hoping everything falls into place.
In short, a leader keeps the past, present, and future in front of him/her in a cycle of learning and decision-making. And this is perhaps the most glaring difficiency in Steger’s lack of leadership at Virginia Tech, perfectly reflected in his own incriminating statement:
Asked whether he would have done anything different, Steger said, “No.”
It is my hope that Virginia Tech will find a leader to begin the healing where Steger’s management has failed.