De Veer stichting Leiden – Fear

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.”
Mark Twain
Last week I was invited to take part in a conference, a conference about fear. Usually I’m invited to go to conferences here or there on subjects that I am more or less used to: regeneration, creativity, remediation, that kind of stuff. Most of the time I’m there to play an active role, to make a presentation, to take part in the discussion. This time it was going to be different. When I got the invitation some months ago I was not even interested: why would I go to a conference about fear? Some weeks later they sent me a new email. Why I didn’t react on the first one? I had to have a look at the website.

I started to get interested. Not so much on the subject. What did I know about fear? What did I want to know? But the organisation of the conference was in the hands of a group of students: the Veerstichting.  They are organising a conference every year. So, I started to think, this is not going to be the next conference with mostly white older men in suits discussing the future of the city without inviting the people that make the city. No, their website said, of the 500 people present half of them will be students. The students all had to write an essay on fear; the writers of the best 250 essays were going to be invited to the conference. The other 250 invited people were so called “creators” of the Dutch society.

I was almost sure that I was going to a conference where I was going to meet only new people: a strange idea, but no I didn’t feel any fear. I decided I was going to find out what was going to happen. A conference about fear.

I went to Leiden last week to go to a conference on fear. What am I afraid of? What do I fear? I started to think about it and I really didn’t know. Am I afraid to lose my job? Not really. I work most of the time form my own company that was not going to make things very different. Am I afraid of the future? Not really. Of course I’m afraid to lose my wife or my daughter. That would be the worst nightmare. But what else should I be afraid of: the changing economy? I think this whole crisis is one big opportunity. Should I be afraid of China? Come on. Russia? I’ve been there many times, nothing to be afraid of. Terrorism? That’s something to be afraid of. But are we really? Am I afraid of climate change? Maybe that third world war already started years ago and we don’t realize it.

I think it was Robert Kaplan who said in a speech that the next war big war would be a war typical for the 21st century. Not an industrial war, not a big war, no longer about trains, planes, ships and mass destruction. In the 21st century everything was going to be micro. Microbiology, viruses, little amounts of nuclear material, terrorism, poisons. Things can happen every day everywhere. It’s useless to be afraid of it.

So is this world, is Europe, is my country, or my city in a “State of Fear”? Maybe. Like it always has been. Many people are afraid of change. Change does not always make things better. But are we all in fear: not at all.

Talented people move and successful people travel. Where I’m interested in, what I’m trying to find out, is what makes cities attractive. What should a city do to attract talented people? Reality is, when there are winners there have to be losers. Talented people have always gone to the places where they will be able to fulfil their dreams. But others stay behind. Attractive cities are successful cities: they attract talent and they have the good universities. The most talented people are almost always the first to leave if they can’t fulfil their dreams where they live. I have seen and heard in everywhere: in Moscow, in Casablanca, in Milan. I’m curious to meet these 250 students. What are their dreams, what could it be that they are afraid of.

Professor Dr Graham Allison had just finished Harvard University in 1962 when the Cuban Missile Crisis happened. He spent his complete academic career at Harvard but also worked as an advisor and consultant for the Pentagon in the 60’s. Allison worked for different American presidents like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as an analyst and advisor for the Ministry of Defence.

Professor Allison came to Leiden to talk about the study he made on the decision making process during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962:  a crisis in which president John F. Kennedy played a decisive role.

I remember the day that John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas Texas. Like everybody else in the world at that moment we were shocked and watched our black and white televisions to see what happened. Many years later I had the opportunity to go to Dallas Texas. I was sick that week, stayed in the hotel for most of the time only to go out to do my talk on the EPA conference that I attended. The only thing I felt I really had to do while being there was to see the place where president John F. Kennedy was shot. Watch Kennedy’s inauguration speech on you tube (“Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country”) or the speech he made in Berlin and you know what I mean: an amazing man.

The Cuba crisis in 1962 was about the Soviet Union attempting to bring nuclear missiles into Cuba. Kennedy had a week of secret talks with his advisers and after that imposed a naval blockade. Secret tapes were made of the discussions that were held in the National Security Council. This made it possible for people like Professor Allison to analyse what had happened there. All people in the room knew that their decisions could lead to a nuclear Armageddon.  Professor Allison wrote a book about this decision making process and his lessons helped numerous people to understand what to do or not to do in a crisis.


What I took from Allison’s talk were the steps that he described to take when a crisis hits. The normal choice he said in nature is when there is Fright, either Fight, or Flight. Human beings though always have one other option: negotiate. There is a checklist of ingredients that you should take care of in such a negotiating process. The first thing is to buy time. Try to find time. Urgency is good, but the worse decisions are made when there is not enough time. So find a way or do something that gives you the possibility to think longer and discuss more. The second thing is always to use multiple minds. Don’t surround yourself with people who think and act the same way as you think. Let other types of thinking in.

The next thing to take care of is that you have to organise a deliberate decision making process.  What you also need is facts: a rigorous analysis of the situation. An important thing to take care of is the fact that big organisations start to operate on their own. Next thing is to have empathy for the enemy or the other: what or how are they thinking. And last but not least: be creative and think out of the box.

It was possible for president Kennedy and his staff to find a solution for the Cuba crisis. Kennedy found the extra time by putting up a complete blockade of Cuba. Eventually he came up with a proposal that no one else would have come up with. If you want to know more about that read Graham Allison’s book or watch his interview on Foreign Affairs.

I thought Professor Allison’s talk was one of the best during the conference. It was interesting though to talk with the students after his presentation. They had heard of the Cuba crisis and of president Kennedy but for most of them this was just another piece of history. I for myself had tears in my eyes seeing Kennedy speak. And a stone in my stomach realising how close the world had been on a nuclear disaster. Every president after Kennedy used the strategies and advices of Graham Allison in the White House.

I think that for me as a project manager in urban planning there are some very good lessons to learn in this decision making process. First if there is fright immediately try to make room for something else than flight or fight. Think about buying time and how to negotiate.

What I’ve learned during the years is that it is sometimes very good to do nothing. That also creates time. Sometimes things start to clear up by themselves and that saves a lot of energy. But most of the time it is best to remember Allison’s advices and be creative.

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