How to Define "Crisis"?

The management gurus might need some language training, but they have the right idea.


You've no doubt heard that the Chinese word for "crisis" combines "danger" with "opportunity." Any number of business books and management seminars have enthusiastically seized on this idea as a way to package alleged insights on how to profit even when times are tough.

Last year, Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, sought to debunk this myth. He argues that while there is little debate regarding the "danger" part of the construction, the component often translated as "opportunity" more closely means "incipient moment" or "crucial point when something begins or changes." Therefore, he concludes, a crisis is no time to look for new opportunities, but rather a time to be wary and "above all to save one's skin and neck!"

But however flimsy and opportunistic the quality of their translations may be, the management gurus are on to something. The problem with a financial crisis is that there really is no incipient moment or crucial point. We are now in the second year of a recession, and while companies are more focused on simply surviving today than they have ever been, senior managers can't afford to think only about saving necks. Leaders must look over the foxhole and see if there is some higher ground to be taken.

Our cover package on "The Year Ahead" certainly doesn't downplay current dangers. Companies will face a difficult battle in simply holding their ground, let alone advancing. But in treasury operations, customer relationships, risk-management practices, and other areas there are opportunities to abandon poor practices and adopt new strategies that will pay off in the long run.

We even managed to unearth a not-insubstantial list of "bright spots," although it is true that every time senior writer Kate O'Sullivan reached a CFO and announced that she was writing a story about positive aspects of the current economy she got an identical response: laughter, followed by "It's going to be a very short article!" Actually, it runs five pages ("And Now for the Good News...") and offers a nice counterpoint to our quarterly Business Outlook Survey. That article does, unfortunately, make a very strong case for Professor Mair's definition of "crisis."


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