Can You Lead in Emergencies?

emergency_styleCan you lead in times of emergency?  Don’t think that's for someone else.  Life exempts none from this call.  

Unless you're a hermit, a time will come when you too must act and lead in the face of danger, no matter your rank or station.

And now is the time to prepare.

Directing Stars in Emergencies

In times of grave threat, tough decisions must be made and actions quickly taken.  What protective measures to take?  Must you flee?  What to carry with you? Who gets priority for assistance?  What about those who won't budge?  Where to shelter and how to get there?

Professional emergency responders such as police, fire, medical, and transportation structure decision-making and action in tight chain-of-command hierarchies.   Superiors decide and give orders; subordinates obey.  

When lives depend on getting things done quickly, there’s no time for consultation and debate. The Directing style of conflict management and decision-making stars in emergencies.  (For a 30 second overview of this and the other four conflict styles, see "Intro to Conflict Styles" slideshow).

High Focus on Goal or Task, Low Focus on Relationships

The essence of Directing is focusing narrowly on a certain goal or task, without being distracted by objections and feelings, or relationships.  "Like it or not, here is how we are doing it.”  The focus is not on keeping others happy but on achieving a goal or outcome.

Directing Doesn’t Always Feel Good 

Directing is pushy.  Sometimes you have to insist on things others dislike or resist.  If you use this style regularly in non-emergency settings or long-term relationships, the cost is very high.  People withdraw from a bossy know-it-all.  Teamwork and morale plummet.   

But don’t think that since you are not a bossy person, this is never a style for you.  You wouldn’t be here if your ancestors hadn’t used Directing to defend their children.  You're at risk in the next emergency life if medical, police, or fire responders don’t have a smoothly functioning chain of command based on it. 

Worse, you will fail to protect people you love some day if you aren’t able to use Directing yourself and model effective use of it to others. 

One of my life lessons in this came, oddly enough, in dog training.  When I was young, my family adopted a beautiful puppy.  We loved her very much and I invested a lot of time in training her.  She learned quickly except for one thing: coming when called.

One day, playing with me in the yard our one year old dog saw something interesting across the street and ran for it.   I knew the danger and called frantically for her to come.  But dear Chao Mei ignored me and ran into the path of a car.  A few seconds later, she was history.

I was surprised at how much sadness this loss brought for a fortnight into our life.  I felt guilty and pondered my role in it.  Clearly, there were elements of chance and animal instinct at work beyond my control.  

Yet had I been more demanding and less flexible in my training, or perhaps less eager to please Chao Mei by letting her run free close to a busy road, she might not have died.

I thought about this often in later years as I raised young children through the predictable dangers of growing up.  Seat belts, sidewalks on busy streets, crowded malls, computers and screens, early driving experience, etc.   Parenting requires frequent response in Directing mode!

If not parenting, someday you will be tasked with chauffeuring a youth group on an urban field trip, or driving colleagues careless about seat belts, or managing finances for a group, or coordinating schedules for use of a facility shared by many, or needing to get urgent medical attention for someone you love whose life is in danger.

Or you'll be a professional with special responsibility during crises:  police, emergency personnel, doctors and nurses, legal representatives, finance people, etc.

The day will come when you will gravely let down other human beings if you do not have the ability to "stand up on your hind legs” when necessary, to speak in a strong voice, make a demand, assert authority, perhaps take control.   

There is a time when the most loving, responsible, devoted-to-others thing you can do is to be decisive, focused on a goal, and demanding.  Even though others are unhappy about it.

"Competing": The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

The venerable Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument names this style “Competing”.  It is true that Directing can look like competing.  But as a descriptor of emergency response, the word is misleading.   

When a  police officer is evacuating a neighborhood threatened by flooding and says, “We want you to leave and travel only on designated highways,” it’s not about competition.  It’s about providing firm direction on behalf of public safety and order.

When the financial controller in a company issues a directive to reduce spending by 20% for the rest of the year, she's probably not into competing.  She's just dead serious about ensuring financial survival and preserving jobs.

Improve Your Skill in Directing

Everyone should develop capacity to use Directing effectively when circumstances require. But it's not as simple as just amping up your volume.   A human bulldozer on the loose in crisis is no help either.    You need all the other conflict/leadership styles as well in emergencies.

In a coming post I propose strategies for self-assessment and change, discuss the common error of using anger as a crutch in Directing, and suggest ways to expand your impact with this essential conflict style.  Stay tuned!

Yes, you!  Pay attention!

You can get an objective, psychometrically validated snapshot of your conflict style patterns.   Take my Style Matters conflict style inventory here for $7.95.  Answer twenty questions and get a 10 page score report with detailed feedback about your unique personal responses in conflict and high stress leadership situations.  Or take the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument here for $18.95.   Compare the two here.


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