Coping with Bad News
John E. Ullmann
My Lord, wise men ne'er sit and wail their woes,
But presently prevent the ways to wail.
-- Shakespeare, Richard II
The troubles that can befall business enterprises are so varied and extensive that they have spawned a veritable literary genre; disaster books and articles have become virtual staples of business publications. What is common to almost all of them, however, is that the calamities did not happen suddenly but in stages, that there were warning signs all along, and that a failure to recognize them in time was a major factor in making the disaster complete.
Moreover, these days such calamities often befall large and once-reputable entities. It is often hard to fathom how it all happened. In a review of a 1988 disaster book on Wall Street doings, John Kenneth Galbraith suggests that
we have an aberrant but inescapable tendency to associate the presence or handling of money--of large financial transactions--with acute intelligence. . . . In the highest of high finance, as we have recently seen once more, the paths of presumed financial intelligence lead regularly, if not to the grave, at least to the minimum security slammers. 1