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How ISIS Wins

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan Paddock
December 11, 2015

The tragedies of recent months that are attributed to ISIS have brought strong reactions from many quarters. Some of these reactions challenge who we are as a nation and the demands of democracy. In a recent New York Times column, “How ISIS Defeats Us,” Frank Bruni wrote that we will lose to ISIS if:

(1) Our response is “driven by partisan grievances and posturing rather than a mature, nuanced attempt to address…anxiety.”

(2) We make decisions based on hysteria.

(3) We indulge in wishful thinking.

(4) We become distracted by the search for masterminds of the plots.

(5) We are simplistic.

(6) We let emotion overtake reason.

(7) We turn “so far inward, so fully against one another and so far away from our ideal that what we’re protecting is no longer what we think it is. We lose the war against ISIS by losing ourselves.”

Leaders and managers of organizations should pay attention to Bruni’s concerns because similar matters arise when any organization faces a crisis. Understanding an organization’s core values, reminding ourselves of the ethical foundations of our profession and frequently discussing what we value in ourselves, the work we do and the people we serve forms a strong bulwark when a crisis arises. We can be sure that at some point in an organization’s life a crisis will occur. 

Recent news about the Veterans’ Administration, the IRS, local police departments, universities and sports help us see the importance of values-based leadership and management. When the “value” becomes expediency, efficiency or protection of an organization’s operations, the organization loses to forces that would condemn or even destroy it.

Organizations that stand up for human rights and the human spirit may become targets for those with disruptive, dysfunctional, dangerous or even evil intentions. Roger Cohen, writing after the recent attacks in Paris, asserted that France was not attacked for what it did, but “for what it is. That in turn is terrifying.” We may be attacked because we stand up for underrepresented groups, for those without the resources to help themselves or for those whose presence challenges “traditional” values and activities of our communities. That can be terrifying, but it is also why we do the work we do.

paddockWe lose if attacks on our agencies make us cowards. Courage is possible if we remember our values. Services for selected client groups, for example, can be defended against assaults by budget-cutters or special interest groups if we demonstrate the link between those services and our core mission and values. Bad actions by a single individual will not bring down a group if others clearly understand what they are called upon to do and what constitutes ethical, or unethical, behavior.

In a crisis, we lose if we look for scapegoats or those we can blame. Responsibility (or blame) is usually broadly dispersed. Bad actors are often known as such before they act. Organizations that do not respond to that challenge share the blame when a bad act happens. The difficult work of a manager includes dealing with an employee whose beliefs or actions threaten the organization’s core values.

We lose if we focus on “winners” and “losers” in the organization, rather than the organization as a whole. Isolating a social worker who has erred, or the worker’s team, suggests that no one else could make a mistake. Understanding why a mistake was made does not condone that action. Isolating the mistake and the responsible parties prevents the organization from learning from it.

We lose when we respond to a crisis emotionally with hysteria, wishful thinking or with “I told you so.” A significant budget cut may send everyone scurrying for the safety of their cubicles. However, a better response is to engage everyone in a discussion about what this might mean to individuals and the organization as a whole and what can be done to protect critical services, as well as the economic security of employees.

Public administration seems to reel from one crisis to another, as the public and the media assert, “government is broken.” Too often, in responding to public criticism, we fail to take time to remember our government’s democratic and constitutional history and our place within it. We lose if we forget that we are stewards of that history. June Sekera, in a PA Times article (Fall 2015), concludes that we need to understand and help others understand, “How the mechanisms of public production arise from and affirm the democratic process and constitutional governance.”

ISIS is a great teacher…in not only how it manages to succeed, but also in what we learn about ourselves in responding to its actions. ISIS wins if we forget our fundamental values. It loses if we remember those values. Any crisis can teach us what contributes to failure and what is required for success. Crisis can help us remember who we are.


Author: Susan Paddock is a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor who lives and works in Las Vegas. She is the former director of Certified Public Manager programs in Arizona and Wisconsin; has published in the areas of leadership, organizational development and human resources; and is an active student and researcher on what works in current or emerging organizational settings. Email [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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