In Part I of this blog What is a crisis? I introduced the definition of crisis according to The Institute for Crisis Management as any problem or disruption that triggers negative stakeholder reaction and that could impact the organization’s financial strength and ability to do what it does. This can apply to businesses, educational institutions, cities, governments, and even individuals.
I told about the first of two crises in recent months in which I was personally involved, the ousting and subsequent reinstatement of Theresa Sullivan, the President of my institution, the University of Virginia. And in this story, an account of a personal crisis that shook not only a key element of my career, but my ability to recover and move forward.
In October of 2010 I, along with my co-author Lynn Perry Wooten, published a book that included the phrase “leading under pressure” in the title. It was the culmination of our work on crisis leadership, on which we each built our academic careers. The book was necessary for progression in my academic career at the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia, and a personal achievement. And it was launched to great acclaim and success!
Several months later I was notified by the owner of the registered trademark for the phrase, “leading under pressure”––an expert in the field of strategies to avoid burnout, increase energy, and improve well being, along with work in leading through business crises––that this phrase was trademarked. We were under the impression that things like website URLs and book titles could not be trademarked, and we didn’t pay close enough attention to the breadth of her work to realize that this was a complete brand, so I wasn’t too concerned…at first.
As a result of my oversight, we soon found ourselves in the middle of a dispute, with the owner enforcing her legal right to the trademarked phrase. This would involve us dismantling our book website, removing the book from circulation, and removing any reference to the phrase from my website. I didn’t want to put my family at financial risk by prolonging the dispute, and I wanted to be able to come to a swift resolution so that I, and we, could move on. I also wanted to respect her trademark and her work, and not contribute to any confusion.
I must say, at first I was paralyzed. After years of teaching, writing, and consulting about learning from and finding opportunity in crisis, when I was faced with my own, I couldn’t do it. It took time. I had to dig deep. And I realized that in order to validate my work, I had to practice what I preached. Eventually, Lynn and I regrouped and began collaborating on our second edition book, with updated citations, a fresh, more universal and less academic writing style, and, of course, a new title. We expect to publish it in the coming months. We also learned from the experience about infringing on trademarks and will be more aware and more thorough in our research when choosing titles for future publications! In addition, I purchased The Institute for Crisis Management, where I could continue putting my research and theories into practice in providing crisis preparedness and consultation to companies and institutions.
Did I experience tragedy? No. Was there a loss of lives or livelihood? Of course not. But in considering the definition of crisis—any problem or disruption that triggers negative stakeholder reaction and that could impact the organization’s (or person’s) financial strength and ability to do what it does—then my circumstances definitely fit this definition. It became more apparent than ever that organizations and people alike should be prepared for unfortunate circumstances. Because even with careful planning, when the reality hits it can derail even the best prepared, much less unsuspecting institutions or individuals, as in my two examples. And as we say on the ICM web site, “It doesn’t have to be shock and awe, it can still derail (you) or your company. Hopefully I’m a better leader and a stronger person because of my experiences; and although I wouldn’t wish it on anyone or any organization, I do believe in finding opportunities in and learning from crisis. I know I did.