IT is true—when they say that once you study crises and disasters, you’re never going to watch war and hazards films the same way again. Last week, I watched Thirteen Hours, the movie adaptation of the ambush killing of US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens by the Islamic Militants in Benghazi, Libya. The plot focused on the crisis that a small group of security elites tried to manage with barely any assistance and with continuously depleting ammunition to take on a surge of militants that came in droves for 13 hours. I was drawn to one specific scene when the security detail of the Ambassador informed the Global Response Staff (GRS)—the security detail of an autonomous organization of the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—that they were under attack.
As a background, the GRS is a paramilitary unit composed of former US Special Forces recruited to serve as armed security for covert operations of the CIA. Technically, their chain of command goes up to the CIA Chief on the ground. Therefore, unless the Chief directs them to a task, they remain still.
When the attack to the Ambassador’s residence happened, the GRS was stationed a mile away from the attack. They were the force closest to the attack zone at that time, but their Chief did not give them the authority to respond to the crisis because that was not part of their duty.
In the movie, the Chief emphasized that they were not first responders, and that their duty was to protect the CIA. As soon as the GRS was informed of the attack, the forces were already on their feet, waiting for orders from the Chief. At that point, the most senior of the GRS was negotiating with the Chief, arguing that the longer they waited, the more difficult it would be to manage the crisis. They were delayed three times, but when they saw from a distance that the residence was on fire, the GRS decided to forego authority and conduct first response on their own.
While this was playing, I could not help but reflect on the role of values when making fast decisions in crisis environments, where both stakes and uncertainty are high. The more you delay, the more you can lose. However, making fast decisions also need to be grounded on some solid justification that when you decide to do one thing instead of another, the outcome will be favorable to you and the organization in which you operate.
Management scholars assert that education, training, skills and experience, among others, can affect the decision-making process. However, we have to remember that all of the men fielded there were trained, educated and experienced—none of them, including the Chief, were serving their first tour of duty. What could have possibly driven the GRS to defy the rules in favor of doing what they deemed ‘right?’ The Chief was still operating under the rules of the organization, while the GRS was already operating on the basis of how much they could do to save lives. What was ‘right’ at this point—obeying the rules of the organization, or stepping outside of the organizational template to do what you can, as an individual trained and educated for a specific job, to manage the situation? I believe that this is a serious point of reflection for managers who have to act fast in disaster and crisis environments. Managers should empower their employees to be excellent assessors of reality, to know when it is best to step out of their roles to contain, or at best instance, correct a situation.
Crisis environments can bring out the best or worst in organizations. In the end, values can define what it will be.
Eula Bianca Villar is an EU Marie Curie Fellow and PhD Candidate at La Salle—Universitat Ramon Llull in Barcelona, Spain. Her research interest includes organizations that operate in crisis and disaster environments. She is also a faculty (on leave) at De La Salle University’s Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business. She welcomes comments sent to her email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty and its administrators.