Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph

Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph

by James Lee Witt, James Morgan

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From the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, how to manage your business in the face of challenge, change, and potential disaster

For James Lee Witt, the man who rebuilt America's emergency response system, the most inspiring and effective lessons--about responsibility, team building, planning, and taking action--have guided real-life heroes through extraordinary situations. These lessons can be applied to business to guide you through the pressures you face each week--or once in a career or a lifetime.

Whether describing earthquake preparation in California, moving a Missouri town out of a floodplain, or shoring up walls and spirits after the Oklahoma City bombing, Witt captures the moments when leaders step forward, how they motivate others, and what they need to triumph over adversity. Witt's home-spun wisdom teaches us to "Tear Down the Stovepipes" to build effective teamwork by thinking horizontally, not vertically; to find energizing people who improve morale, whether a V.P.'s secretary or a key client, since "A Lightning Rod Works Both Ways"; and to establish systems for capturing what happens--what goes right and what goes wrong--to ensure that every challenge leaves you "Stronger in the Broken Places."

To bring home the ten lessons in this inspiring and useful book, Witt shares examples and strategies from corporations--from Malden Mills and Intel to Swissair and Kmart--who have overcome crisis by applying the same principles to their business every day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466869684
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/29/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 645,574
File size: 416 KB

About the Author

A native of Arkansas, James Lee Witt served as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1993 until 2001, and he transformed FEMA into a customer-focused model for crisis management. An international consultant and motivational speaker, he lives in Washington, D.C.

James Morgan is the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Distance to the Moon and co-author of Leading with My Heart, Virginia Kelley's bestselling memoir of raising Bill Clinton. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

A native of Arkansas, James Lee Witt served as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency from 1993 until 2001, and he transformed FEMA into a customer-focused model for crisis management. An international consultant and motivational speaker, he lives in Washington, D.C. He is the author, with James Morgan, of Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph.
James Morgan is the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Distance to the Moon; co-author, with James Lee Witt, of Stronger in the Broken Places: Nine Lessons for Turning Crisis into Triumph; and co-author of Leading with My Heart, Virginia Kelley's bestselling memoir of raising Bill Clinton. He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Read an Excerpt

Stronger in the Broken Places

Nine Lessons for Turning Crisi into Triumph

By James Lee Witt, James Morgan

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2002 James Lee Witt and James Morgan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6968-4



Know-how comes from knowing what matters


For most of his life, David Weil has begun his days gazing at the Pacific Ocean. It's an enviable way to jump-start a morning. "There's something about a view," Weil says. "If you can look out over an unlimited horizon, and complement that with dolphins, whales, morning fog, sunrises, sunsets — if you have that kind of vista to wake up to and to come home to in the evening, it's very serene. It's like a big comforter that you pull on over yourself. Wherever you are, it gives you a feeling of well-being and tranquility."

I don't think I've ever heard a more eloquent testimonial to the soothing effects of life at the shore. It's a life connected to nature, ruled in some essential way by the quiet rhythms of the earth. The often raucous and insistent rhythms of the man-made world ultimately pale in comparison. No wonder so many people have made their homes in places where nature is most unbridled — at the beach, on riverbanks, perched high on mountains or hills with views of verdant valleys or shimmering seas.

David Weil moved to Malibu in the late 1950s, when he was eight. His mother, Carol, had remarried, and David's new stepfather, Matt Rapf, was the producer of such TV shows as Ben Casey and, later, Kojak. They lived in various houses in what had been known since 1928 as the Malibu Movie Colony, an oceanfront enclave a few miles up the coast from Los Angeles. Besides providing the obvious pleasures for a young surfer like David, this was charmed ground. David rode his bike on the same roads and swam in the same foamy surf that had been christened by such early stars as Clara Bow, Ronald Colman, Harold Lloyd, Gary Cooper, and Barbara Stanwyck; by the '50s and throughout the '60s, David's neighbors had included the likes of Rod Steiger, Paul Newman, Liz Taylor, and Richard Burton. In the earliest days, lots could only be leased, thirty-foot slices going for one dollar per oceanfront foot per month; then, in the late '30s, Malibu lots were offered for sale. From that day to this, the residential area known generally as Malibu has been synonymous in the public's imagination as a playground for movie and music stars and other wealthy personalities from the entertainment world.

But long before the first limo containing the first movie mogul rolled through the gates, this property was considered a very desirable place to live. In 1592, when a Spanish explorer named Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stopped off for a fresh drink of water, he was stunned by the area's dramatic rise from sea level to mountain vistas — and by the bustling and prosperous towns populated by a healthy and handsome Native American tribe. These were the Chumash Indians, who historians reckon had prospered here for some four thousand years. According to The Malibu Story, published by the Malibu Lagoon Museum, the Chumash's main village was nestled at the foot of one of the large canyons, approximately where the Malibu city offices stand today. They called this place Humaliwo, which meant "where the sea sounds loudly." But all through what are now called the Santa Monica Mountains, the Chumash had established pockets of community marked by dome-shaped grass huts. During the day, the women and children ground acorns for mush and kept the home fires burning. As pink evening fell, curls of smoke rising from the huts made a welcome sight for the men returning from a day at sea, their red canoes jam-packed with swordfish, abalone, clams, and pieces of steatite, or soapstone, chinked from quarries on nearby islands and brought home to be shaped into bowls and artwork such as carvings of whales.

The only downside to this idyllic life was that the land the Chumash occupied was designed by nature to burn occasionally in order to begin the regenerative process. "As home to a chaparral ecosystem, the Malibu area hosts one of the most combustible types of brush in existence," wrote Daily Bruin staff writer Phillip Carter in 1996. "Chaparral consists of many small, woody plants that are full of oils and are extremely flammable. These plants also tend to occur in very dry climates, and are drought resistant." Citing then-UCLA biologist Jeff Smallwood, Carter wrote, "But the vegetation's most dangerous trait is its tendency to burn every 15 to 45 years in its own reproductive cycle."

When the land burns regularly, as it's supposed to do, there's not enough growth to generate the huge walls of flames — fanned by the bellowslike Santa Ana winds — that the area has seen in recent years. But, said Smallwood, when humans build in these areas, not only do they increase the chance of fires, they disrupt the natural process. Small fires are generally extinguished right away, allowing great quantities of old dry brush to build up. Combine that with the region's high-velocity winds and the north-south-running canyons, and you've got a formula for disaster. "That creates very, very hot fires that also move extremely rapidly," Smallwood told Carter. Yet in those benignly beautiful windows of time between nature's housecleanings, the sparkling sea and the clear blue sky are enough to make even the most cautious of us fall in love.

* * *

IN HIS EARLY fifties now, David Weil is managing partner of the elite Los Angeles law firm O'Melveny & Myers, with offices in a Century City skyscraper, right next door to the Century Plaza Hotel. Those who know him well can probably still see some of the young surfer in him. He's trim, owing to his daily morning ritual of jogging along the beach before work. His hair is graying, but full. He seems to be a man not given to small talk, which makes his comments about the soothing aspect of Malibu all the more eloquent. But, then, something that close to the heart couldn't really be considered small talk.

Weil left Malibu in 1968 to go to college, after which he worked a few years before deciding to get a law degree. For that, he moved all the way across the continent, to Washington, D.C. It was at Georgetown Law School that he met his future wife, Annette. She was from New Orleans' Garden District, a close-knit area of fine old homes whose prime views were of Doric columns, pink azaleas, and ghostly streetcars gliding along the boulevard. Annette's law school specialty was corporate securities, and at first she and David thought they would live in Washington. That suited Annette fine. "I was used to a small town," she says. "Los Angeles is not a small town." So in 1980 when David announced that he wanted to go home to California and practice entertainment law, Annette was a bit uneasy about what she was in for.

Annette Weil is Jackie Kennedy thin and elegant in that same unpretentious patrician way. She stopped working as a lawyer when she and David started their family, so on a mild winter Monday in Malibu she's dressed in faded jeans, a white cable-knit sweater, and tennis shoes. Her husband is at work, her two children — sixteen-year-old Derek and fourteen-year-old Holly — are at school, and she's agreed to talk about life in Malibu. And about what happened to that life in October 1993.

Malibu was a surprise to her. "It really has a sense of community," she says. "You can pretend that you're not living in a booming metropolis." The Malibu she's talking about isn't the fabled beachfront Movie Colony. Early on, settlers to the area jumped the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and built houses among the peaks and canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains. The houses tend to be close together on lots that dip and slant and rise and fall, and the roads through the neighborhoods are by necessity narrow and winding. Many of the earliest houses are very small, and there is no sewer system — everyone's on septic tanks. Until recently, water pressure was a problem the higher you got up the hill.

On the other hand, the slow twisty roads and the cozy jumble of houses create a distinctive kind of homeyness: not city living, certainly, nor typical suburban sprawl. Mix in views of the sparkling blue Pacific framed by tumbling vines of bright tropical flowers, and you have a place that is as close to the Mediterranean villages of Italy and France as any we have in the United States.

"Our house was built in the 1950s," says Annette, referring to the house the Weils lived in during the 1993 fires, "and there was nothing spectacular about it but the view. The neighborhood was great, though. Our next-door neighbor on one side was a teacher at Santa Monica College, and on the other side was Ali MacGraw. Across the street was a man who worked in a hardware store. I remember one time when my daughter was a baby, she got her leg caught in her crib and we couldn't get it out. I ran across the street and said to him, 'I want you to come quick and bring a saw.' He jumped up and was on his way. Two doors down from Ali was Ashley Judd — this was before she was famous. Holly used to go to her house and bake cookies with her. So it was nice, with all kinds of people."

On the morning of October 26, 1993, David woke up early and went for his run. When he was dressed and leaving for work, he told Annette, "Keep your eyes open." Something about the day, he says now, seemed strange. "The weather conditions were exactly what we've come to associate with fire danger — hot, dry, windy in October, November, December. In the past two or three weeks, there had been very serious fires farther south in Laguna Beach. So there was already a sensitivity to fires throughout southern California."

After David left, Annette drove Derek and Holly — then eight and six — to school in Pacific Palisades, a short distance east of the PCH. That morning she stayed at school, helping Holly's first-grade teacher take the class for an outing in the park. "One of the other mothers said to me, 'You know, there's a fire in Malibu. You should go home.'

"'Nah,' I said. 'There was one last week, too. It's nothing, don't worry about it.'

"'Well, maybe you ought to call somebody and check.'"

The woman's persistence convinced Annette to phone a neighbor. "This lady I called was probably the reason David didn't take this fire seriously at first," says Annette. "When I was in the hospital giving birth to my first child, she called us one morning at five A.M. saying there was a fire on the other side of the mountain and that David better come home. He rushed over but could only get as far as Topanga Canyon Boulevard; after that the streets were blocked off. So he hitchhiked a ride on a fire truck. When he got home, he climbed up on the roof to water down the house with the hose, but the water had been cut off. Still, nothing happened. The fire never came over the hill.

"So this time I called the same neighbor, and she said, 'Yes, absolutely, you have to come home.'"

Annette could almost hear David's eyes rolling when she phoned to tell him what she was doing. "You're crazy," he said. "She's an alarmist. She did this to us before. Why are you bothering?"

Annette's station wagon was the very last vehicle allowed through before emergency crews put up roadblocks. As she negotiated the winding road to their house, she could see the dark smoke cloud emanating from somewhere beyond the ridge. At home, the air was thick and choking. Once inside, she phoned David. "Why are you doing this?" he said. "It'll never come over the mountain."

When they hung up, David sat staring out his seventh-floor office window toward the ocean. It wasn't terribly rare to see smoke rising from the mountains, but this cloud looked unusually menacing. Meanwhile, Annette hurried around the house packing suitcases with clothes, children's photos, and the stuffed animals they slept with. Once the bags were in the car, she carted out an armload of David's suits and threw them across the suitcases. Just as she was about to round up the dog and two cats, the phone rang. It was David, who had phoned the sheriff. "Get out of there!" he shouted.

"I'm not done," Annette said.

"I don't care. Get out!"

School was shutting down, so they agreed that David would pick up the kids and they would meet up at a friend's house in Pacific Palisades. Annette finished up as quickly as possible, given the tactical and logistical problems of corralling a couple of cats for a car trip. "One of them, Sparky, doesn't travel well," Annette says with admirable understatement. Finally she got the car loaded and started toward the Palisades, but the road was barricaded. She turned back the other way.

Annette's day deteriorated from there. First, many of the canyon roads were also closed, so the only thing to do was take the PCH to up near Oxnard and then double back on the interstate. About two hours into the trip, the dog, Oreo, threw up on the car seat and the gearshift. Sparky howled, drivers honked, and David — who was watching his neighborhood go up in flames on TV — kept calling Annette and asking where she was and why it was taking her so long.

"When I get there," Annette hissed at him through the cell phone, "I'm getting out of this car and you're cleaning it up."

Some five hours after she'd left their house, she pulled into their friends' driveway. By then, the sight of her family, alive and unhurt, made the crazed journey she'd just endured seem perfectly reasonable.

* * *

THAT THE WEILS can find something laughable about that day is a testament to their resilience, which is in turn a testament to their values.

I'll never forget my landing in Malibu. It was probably the night of the day the Weils had to evacuate, or maybe a night later. Then-governor Pete Wilson and I flew over the area in a Black Hawk helicopter, sparks from that inferno licking at us from all sides. As our pilot fought to hold steady among the swirling air currents, the sky was blue-black with a raging orange strobe pulsating on the horizon. The lower we got, the better we could see the actual flames starting to come up over the mountain. We put down at Pepperdine University, just west of where the Weils' house was, and for a time we thought we might have to evacuate, too. Then they secured the area and we were able to make that our base.

During that long night, the governor and I heard heartbreaking stories from some homeowners and many firemen. One man told us his house had burned and his children had been given shelter in the home of a family he didn't even know. The firefighters told tales of weary frustration — the fire trucks couldn't maneuver through the narrow mountainside streets, the water pressure was woefully inadequate, the cedar-shake houses so carefully nestled among beautiful but flammable landscaping were doomed to be consumed by flames. The firefighters could only stand by and watch, their fallback goal to prevent the fire from leaping the PCH and igniting the houses on the shore. "A lot of people on the mountain think they cut off the water up here in order to save the Colony," says Annette. "Anyway, that's the rumor."

At about three-thirty A.M., I had just wrapped a Today show interview with Bryant Gumbel in the oceanfront parking lot of Duke's restaurant when I got word that CNN was ready for me at their makeshift studio on top of the mountain. We slowly made our way up, and even though I had been in the area for hours, nothing had prepared me for what I saw next. All the houses were gone. All the trees were incinerated. It looked like a picture out of a horror movie. The chimneys were all that remained, smoke slowly circling up around them from the charred ground.

We were still there when the sun started coming up, and the scene only got stranger. Smoke hung heavy on the mountain and in the canyons, and the fire gave everything a sick orange glow. This wasn't the vibrant throbbing energy we'd encountered coming in on the Blackhawk; this was quiet and still and deathlike. This was the aftermath. And I'll never forget, as I was standing there trying to concentrate on making sense of this disaster for CNN's viewers, I caught sight of a stone fireplace chimney with a diamond-shaped cutout in it. Maybe something had once been mounted in that space, or maybe it was just part of some stonemason's design. But while I was talking, the sun began to shine right through that man-made hole, and I felt a chill go down my spine.

* * *

IT WAS A couple of days before the Weils could confirm that their house had indeed burned. The only things that survived were their chimney and a swing set in the backyard. In the meantime, they had moved into the Century Plaza Hotel. "Of course the kids loved it," Annette says. "Daddy could walk to work, there were swimming pools all over the place, and across the street were fifteen movie theaters. But the thing they liked best was that the TV had speakers in the bathroom. They didn't want to leave."


Excerpted from Stronger in the Broken Places by James Lee Witt, James Morgan. Copyright © 2002 James Lee Witt and James Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Introduction: Handling It,
I. Preparing for Crisis,
1. Find Your Roots,
2. Market the Storm,
II. Preventing Crisis,
3. A River's Gonna Go Where a River's Gonna Go,
4. Reconsider the Three Pigs,
III. Responding to Crisis,
5. Twine Is Stronger than String,
6. Treat the Heart without Losing Your Head,
7. Tear Down the Stovepipes,
IV. Recovering from Crisis,
8. A Lightning Rod Works Both Ways,
9. Stronger in the Broken Places,
Epilogue: If the Ox Is in the Ditch ...,
About the Authors,

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