‘We Were Not Found Wanting’

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Originally posted at Forbes.com

On this date 53 years ago, an administrator did what managers everywhere did in the 1960’s: he issued an interoffice memo to the staff in his organization. The organization had just faced an unexpected test — a true “black swan” event. The stresses upon the team and its systems were enormous, and yet the organization absorbed the moment while still maintaining normal operations for its regular customers. In less than 250 words, the administrator’s memo makes clear how the organization pulled this off:

DALLAS COUNTY HOSPITAL DISTRICT
Office Memorandum
November 27, 1963

To: All Employees

At 12:38 p.m., Friday, November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy and Texas’ Governor John Connally were brought to the Emergency Room of Parkland Memorial Hospital after being struck down by the bullets of an assassin.

At 1:07 p.m., Sunday, November 24, 1963, Lee. H. Oswald, accused assassin of the late president, died in an operating room of Parkland Memorial Hospital after being shot by a bystander in the basement of Dallas’ City Hall. In the intervening 48 hours and 31 minutes Parkland Memorial Hospital had:

1. Become the temporary seat of the government of the United States.

2. Become the temporary seat of the government of the State of Texas.

3. Become the site of the death of the 35th President.

4. Become the site of the ascendency of the 36th President.

5. Become site of the death of President Kennedy’s accused assassin.

6. Twice become the center of the attention of the world.

7. Continued to function at close to normal pace as a large charity hospital.

What is it that enables an institution to take in stride such a series of history jolting events? Spirit? Dedication? Preparedness? Certainly, all of these are important, but the underlying factor is people. People whose education and training is sound. People whose judgement is calm and perceptive. People whose actions are deliberate and definitive. Our pride is not that we were swept up by the whirlwind of tragic history, but that when we were, we were not found wanting.

(Signed)

C. J. Price
Administrator

The copy of that memo pictured above belonged to Margaret Wilonsky, an x-ray technician at Parkland Memorial Hospital on that fateful day in Dallas. Because of the proximity of the x-ray department to the emergency room, she was a first-hand witness to Jackie Kennedy in her blood-stained pink suit and the x-rays of President Kennedy’s shattered skull.

Wilonsky was just one of the many doctors, nurses, technicians, staff and volunteers who did more than just respond to the Presidential crisis in Trauma Room 1 — they handled the needs of the other patients requiring emergency care that day with equal professionalism and urgency. From the Dallas County Hospital District newsletter some weeks later:

At the time the dying President and wounded Governor were brought into the Emergency Room, there were 23 other patients undergoing treatment in the area. Seven additional emergency patients were admitted and treated between the time of arrival of the President and Governor at 12:38 p.m. and the removal of the President’s body at 2:19 p.m.

In 1963, Parkland Memorial Hospital treated an average of 272 patients a day. On that day, a “handful” of patients not named “Kennedy” also died despite the best efforts of Parkland’s staff, while 18 babies took their first breath in Parkland’s maternity ward.

C. Jack Price knew how his organization pulled all of this off with such excellence: People. It’s always the People. Org charts full of “FTE’s” don’t rise to the occasion , and efficient processes cannot dig deep to navigate through the confusion of a “whirlwind of tragic history.” Nobody ever looked back and said “When we were tested, our strategy was not found wanting.”

Don’t wait for the unexpected crisis to realize this. Leading with this recognition before it strikes makes it more likely the people in your organization will rise to the occasion when it does.