Practical crisis management

During transformation chaos is mostly unavoidable, crisis management will be required, but to which extent will be unknown. Every crisis will most likely be different but with practice and experience under pressure, one can cope better and prevent unnecessary mistakes from making a bad situation, worse.

On the 3rd July 2001, I turned toward Chris and asked, ‘What happened?’

Chris had joined our team the previous week, this was his first patrol with us. On the task he was positioned next to me so I could personally guide him through this foreign terrain, Chris had been trained in less harsh conditions and this environment was extremely tough to operate in. I could also take the opportunity to provide some friendly advice on the patrol, to build Chris’s confidence and attempt to identify if any of his training had gaps. A normal on-boarding military patrol procedure.

The team had 8 members in total. I was the Team Leader, to assist me I had a second in command called Gaz and then 6 other team members each with their own special skillsets. Our primary task was to assist and mentor a platoon of 32 foreign soldiers as they navigated through the native (Badlands) territory.

Chris had been expertly trained as the teams’ Satellite Communications guru and had joined us to replace Greener (whom had been sent home the previous week as he was now the proud father to a healthy baby girl called ‘Terri’).

As a team leader, I had already several foreign tours under my belt and thus was no stranger to a crisis. A reflective leader I would always ensure our team conducted a lessons-learned session within the short time after the completion of any difficult patrol. I began to realise that it helped to talk about the incident itself, the thought processes each member had during the incident and sometime after the incident I left the door open for the guys to approach me individually, if they needed to further discuss anything.

In 1998 I had completed my first intensive 6 month leadership course and had already chosen my personal leadership style, the guys knew that I would always give a straight answer to any question, try not to ask anything of them that I would not be prepared to do myself and most important of all; be helpful.

When I looked around I immediately thought, ‘Wonderful, we all made it!’. We had all agreed to go forward after the count of three. ‘Go’ meant to manoeuvre forward through the hail of incoming enemy bullets and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) that were being fired towards us. ‘Wait a minute though! Where’s Chris?’, I asked the rest of the team. As previously mentioned Chris was intentionally located beside me in the team and now he was not there. I immediately thought the worst; Chris had caught a bullet and was now Man Down (a term for injured person or worse).

Actually Chris had acted like most people would act in a newly experienced crisis scenario; he had frozen, developed a long lingering stare (know as a thousand yard stare) and became totally speechless. Chris had become separate from the rest of the team. This had developed into a mini crisis within a crisis, a by-product of the original scenario.

That initial wonderful sense of relief that we had all made it across the hail of enemy fire had quickly been replaced. Replaced by a new problem to solve, new thoughts to consider, less about focus on the original, still ongoing, enemy fire and 90% attention diverted to solving this individually induced situation.

I immediately knew the fastest way to eliminate this new dilemma, not a solution that I was going to like but one that was necessary to take. It was important to turn the teams’ focus, once again, towards the original and main crisis, towards the enemy fire.

I asked Gaz to stay and provide full cover with the other team members as I began to stand up through the same fire which, by the very grace of God I had only just survived. I proceeded to turn back and ran to where we had just been located. I was looking everywhere for Chris. I eventually found him alive, well and lying in good cover from the enemy fire.

To properly help him through this individual dilemma and get him back to the safety of the team, I needed to talk calmly and carefully to Chris and ask him what was he going through to get him to regain focus.

As clear as day I remember the response from the petrified young man as he told me, ‘I cannot move. I am scared. I will get shot for sure if I get up’. I distinctly remember feeling the bullets zip past me and most people stop me at this point when I retell this story stating that they would have grabbed Chris at that moment and dragged him back toward the team. I then take the time to emphasise that military leadership is sometimes viewed incorrectly to the public. Everyone remembers films where the guy in charge just screams at the soldiers, the soldiers in the films then react to this crazy screaming knowing exactly what is to be done. That is certainly not reality.

In reality a crisis is a horrifying experience, it is the complete fear of the unknown, a chaotic unsettling situation that can cause immense pressure. One does not tend to react positively to increased chaos, confusion or screaming when already under pressure. This is not effective leadership. One tends to react to a calm, considered voice that offers to help.

In a real crisis:

a) You really can’t outrun a bullet,

b) Overly aggressive behaviour shown in leadership is a sign of weakness,

c) Strong leaders who care for, know their people, remain calm, build trust and loyalty tend to be the most effective leaders.

Just so you are all clear, I went to several wars, I and my teams were personally involved in over 150 enemy engagements/ encounters (crisis scenarios). Do I regret that? War brings pain, misery and chaos for all involved and is not good, but I have seen that the unavoidable chaos brings a requirement to create advancement in medicines, technologies and engineering which are then utilised to save countless people beyond the end of war. I believe every story and scenario has two sides that must be explored even if it goes against one’s personal ideology. I now live a life without war and having seen the worst imaginable crisis, I am in a position to assist others in reducing their stress and pain during this times of emergency, I ensure good comes of this horrible business.

After checking that Chris was injury free, I calmly asked him to look up in the sky and tell my what he could see, he had come to notice the friendly helicopter hovering high above us. I told him that we had the greatest set of eyes available on the battlefield and that he should be confident that our team will only ever be asked to take a risk, when I as the leader have ensured that we have established the advantage.

As in his momentary lapse Chris had forgotten about the assets that were available to offer the team additional protection and observation. I had communicated this to the team during the pre-patrol brief but in the excitement Chris must have forgot.

When I had reminded him about this asset he knew that with this additional support network in place, his chances of success greatly improved. He got onto his feet as did I, he gained composure and ran through the bullets and made it to the remainder of the team. We both did.

When we completed the rest of the patrol and all got back to base, during our learning session Chris realised that most of team members had felt afraid at some given point but when this happened they believed in each others’ abilities and were able to make negative feelings disappear, to continue with the task in hand.

As a leader in a crisis we need to stay calm, be the most informed person in the crisis and ensure we communicate calmly, precisely and directly to everyone about what is clear fact. This affords the others to gain and maintain confidence of a successful outcome. We must also accept other people have less experience in crisis and as a leader be prepared to personally guide those less experienced people through to completion, if required.

There are many concepts of leadership that have been closely analysed and formulated since the start of the 20th Century. The author has completed higher leadership studies, practiced and taught leadership and delivered leadership development over the last 25 years. The author notes that for a leader to be consistently effective in a crisis, he/she must truly believe in the team, the needed methods and must really know their people and attempt to get a ground truth assessment of the team members’ individual distress tolerance levels.

Crisis management and leadership are used in unison. Practicing scenarios can eliminate error but never all of the errors as each crisis will surely bring different elements in real terms. Practicing can at least allow one to establish good sound procedures to provide that often necessary quick response.

by: Alan Houston Cree

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