Seneca the Younger image

Don’t Stumble over Something behind You

May 16, 2024

These words are frequently attributed to the Ancient Roman stoic Seneca the Younger. They still ring true 2,000 years later. When it comes to managing a crisis, they are both a warning and a reason for leadership to move forward.

Speed is the single most important difference between good and great crisis response. Anything that creates unnecessary friction can be the difference between saving a company’s reputation and digging a deeper hole. But many of the things that trip up companies happened in the past, often unrelated to the problem facing them now. They literally stumble over something behind them.

Here are five guises of stumbling blocks that should be left behind:

Getting Stuck on How We Got Here. I have been in a crisis “war room” where the CEO spent the first 90 minutes cross-examining his leadership team about how this situation happened. Not one second of that 90 minutes was spent on how to respond to it. That CEO was so laser-focused on how we got here, he forgot all about the need to decide where we’re going. They were searching for someone to blame rather than working on a way forward. 

To be clear, a crisis management team needs to know what happened, what led up to it, and what’s being done about it. That said, however you got to this situation, you’re there. You can go forward, or you can go in reverse. Only one of those directions protects reputations.

Conjuring Ghosts. If focusing attention on blaming someone for today’s crisis is bad (and it is), then pointing the finger at someone for their past failure is even less productive. I was in a Zoom meeting once when a CEO said to their Chief Marketing Officer, “I dunno – you screwed this up last time.” Making a tense situation worse by belittling someone in front of others is not conducive to crisis response. It’s embarrassing. It’s irrelevant. And it will surely dampen anyone else’s willingness to offer suggestions.

Being Hamstrung by Past Grudges. It is astonishing how often a petty personality conflict hinders crisis response. It usually takes the form of, “Person A can’t be in the same room as Person B” for reasons. When those two people are the General Counsel and the Chief Communications Officer – or any combination of people on a crisis management team – then expect lots of delays, foot faults, and acrimony. Worse, anticipate the possibility that one or both will try to undermine the other.

No CEO should tolerate this behavior during a crisis. We’re not asking people to sing kum-ba-ya or go camping together or even send each other Christmas cards. Nope. All we ask is that they grow the F up and act professionally for the next few days. And by ask, I mean demand. A crisis is no time for petty grudges.

Saying “We’ve Always Done It This Way.” This is another classic way to squash forward progress by relying too much on past tactics. Those tactics may have worked before. They might even work now, but shutting down a discussion to roll out rigid, timeworn strategies is equivalent to stumbling over something behind you. Don’t settle for this solution – work toward something better.

Fearing Past Pain. Experiencing pain is how we learn … to avoid experiencing pain. The fear of past pain can be paralyzing in the heat of the moment. Yet, that past pain was in the past – it’s behind you. Hopefully, other lessons were learned that will improve your response now, but the pain needs to remain in the past. 

If you feel as though your crisis management is flagging, check to see if any of these stumbling blocks are the cause and start working on them now. The most effective strategy to deal with it is talking through it. Acknowledge the elephant in the room, remind everyone what the goal of working together is, and reinforce the importance of everyone playing their part to the best of their professional ability. 

Remember, it’s not about blaming or shaming. It’s about moving forward productively to manage the crisis everyone is facing. Many of the stumbling blocks above require longer-term solutions to fix – today, we need to fix a crisis. Long-simmering issues have to wait until after the crisis is resolved, and then they should be addressed so they are no longer potential stumbling blocks.

If you are in the mindset to take our advice and not let the past trip you up, schedule time to talk about a past crisis with your leadership team and take a hard look at what went right and what went wrong. That feedback provides a roadmap to fixing the problems now. 

Seneca (or whoever said it) was right – don’t stumble over things behind you. Use these words to remind everyone to leave the past in the past and instead keep focused on moving forward, solving problems, protecting reputation, and living to run another day. 


Being crisis prepared is an ongoing effort.Yes, full blown simulations and workshops should happen regularly, but crisis preparation can be as simple as holding up a newspaper (or your phone) during a staff meeting and asking “what would we do if this happened to us?” The Crisis of the Month cuts out the newspaper (pun INTENDED). Once a month, we’ll send you a situation with some questions that you can ask at your next staff meeting. There. You’ve done a crisis exercise and are stronger for it. Subscribe here

Kith facilitates crisis preparedness workshops that will help your company attain the clarity, trust and speed you need to respond confidently – no dithering! – to any crisis. We’d be happy to have a conversation about how we can help your company be ready to chart an effective course to reputation protection.


Jeff Blaylock

Jeff is an experienced strategic communications and public affairs professional who has advised organizations through challenging media and political environments, public affairs campaigns, reputation management, message development and crises.