Cascading Failures

When President Kennedy was assassinated, our country faced a crisis unlike any we had ever faced.  When Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office returning from Dallas, he realized that his top priority was to calm the nation.  He kept President Kennedy’s staff and cabinet in place.  He pledged to continue President Kennedy’s legislative priorities.  In fact, he was much more successful than President Kennedy was in civil rights and social programs.  President Johnson’s response to President Kennedy’s assassination will go down as one of the most remarkable achievements of any President.

Avoiding the crisis that could have been was not easy for President Johnson.  He was a man of enormous ego, and it was not easy to minimize his ego to support the agenda of a man he often disagreed with.  President Johnson didn’t like many of the people he inherited from President Kennedy, but he worked with them.  Many of the initiatives that President Johnson supported went against his conservative roots, but yet he fought for them.

For all the successes of the initial days of the Johnson administration, the failures of Vietnam have wiped away President Johnson’s place in history.  The Vietnam War can best be described as a cascading failure.  Cascading failures are the result of a series of decisions that make a situation progressively worse.  Typically, cascading failures are the result of:

  • A leader’s ego and the inability to accept that serious action is needed.
  • An inability to take unpopular steps to reverse the failure largely due to not wanting to be seen as weak.
  • A lack of responsiveness to those with expertise.
  • An unwillingness to communicate openly and honestly with the public and ask for their help.
  • An isolation of contacts to only those who reinforce the leader’s judgement even when it is deeply flawed.

All of us sometime in our lives will face a moment when a challenge can turn to a series of cascading failures.  These moments may be career related or personal.  How we deal with these moments can define us as Vietnam defined President Johnson.  To avoid cascading failures, we need to:

  • Acknowledge that the situation can get much worse if we don’t take action.
  • Turn to wise counsel for help.
  • Take the steps necessary to stop the failure from getting worse.
  • Don’t let your ego get in the way.
  • Find someone you trust who will tell you what you probably don’t want to hear, but be there for you as well.

As our nation, our business, our family experience the potential for cascading failures, each of us need to do our part to “dam up” the failures.  At this moment in time (summer 2021), that means getting the COVID-19 vaccine and encouraging others to do so.

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“Any fact facing us is not as important as our attitude towards it, for that determines our success or failure.”  – Norman Vincent Peale (minister and author)     

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