I have given a number of workshops and keynotes in the past year where I relate my leadership experiences from the army and responding to disasters.
There is one question that comes up at the end of almost every one of the bookings: How do you lead people during emergencies when they are scattered all over the place and you have no idea what is going on?
The short answer is trust and chance.
In 2011 there was a wildfire that tore across the bush in northern Alberta that forced the evacuation of 17,000 people. In the end over 500 homes were destroyed 300 of which were in the town of Slave Lake. But the days of the main destruction I had a dozen teams of employees and volunteers that were being deploying to the effected area to support the evacuation of all of these people.
The geography covered thousands of square kilometres of northern forest that covered most of northwest Alberta. Roads were closed and cell-phone coverage, spotty at the best of times, was down due to the raging fires. My people were driving into this maelstrom to deliver humanitarian services.
In this day and age of instantaneous broadband and high-speed communications I was completely in the dark for most of the beginning days of the operations. My biggest fear was that my people were driving into the fires. My only instruction to those I could get a hold of was this … No one gets killed.
Chance was on my side and no one on my team was hurt. And in fact there wasn’t a single fire related casualty out of all of those people forced from their homes.
Trust was on my side, because of the work we had done to build our teams. I knew that these people would do the best job they could and knew that I had their back as them made decisions and took actions in the field.
There is little you can do to control Chance, but there is everything you can do to build trust. Here is the top 3:
1. TRAIN your people well and in challenging situations. Military leaders have learned that repetitive training builds muscle and memory triggers that win out over panic when emergencies take place.
2. NEVER, ever discipline someone for making a decision even if it is one you wouldn’t have made. Remember, they were there and you weren’t.
That said, when things have calmed done it is fair to review the actions taken with a coach’s or mentor’s eye around what lessons could be gained from that experience.
3. TALK to your people in calm tones. Imagine they are in front of you; imagine putting your hand on their shoulder and talking them though a scary complex situation.