As leaders, mentors, and sponsors; we are all faced with difficult situations. Sometimes they are situations you are prepared and trained for like an accident, bomb threat, or process upset. There are other situations where you aren’t or can’t even imagine how you could be prepared. Examples of these catastrophic situations are the tsunami in Japan, the major typhoon in the Philippine’s. The emergency plans only went so far in these examples. However for each of us, sometimes the unthinkable happens on a smaller scale – your boss is arrested for drug dealing or something worse, a colleague falsifies data which you have relied on for your grant or project proposal, your salesman promises that the production plant will meet the quality specification that will require violation of permit conditions, etc.
We all have a blind spot where we think that none of this can ever happen to me. Yet, everyday there is the chance that this can happen to you. In my personal history my greatest fear was being on the six o’clock news with an environmental incident. Luckily for me, I had been planning for such an event, i.e. how would I handle the worst thing that could happen? Recently, this same type of thinking was presented in an anecdote by Canadian Astronaut Chris Hatfield.
Chris Hatfield was working with some individuals when they learned that Elton John was coming to their area. They decided that they could use his fame as a International Space Station commander to meet Elton John. He related this story – what was the worst thing that could happen? Elton John would met them and learn that he plays guitar and had played David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity” on the space station, and would ask him to come up on stage and play something with him. The likely candidate song would be “Rocket Man”. So, he went home and learned the song. Ultimately, he was prepared when just such a scenario played out.
While most of us would never think of Chris Hatfield’s situation as the worst thing that could happen, it does illustrate how we as leaders can prepare. In my case, I had media training, and knew what I would be up against both internally within the company and externally with the reporters and the regulatory agencies. No I did not have a specific plan ahead of time, but I knew how to buy those precious minutes that allowed us to pull a team together and develop a plan.
It is how we have prepared, even if it is not for the specific event, and how we “act” that defines us as leaders. I have put act in quotes because there are many situations where we may have the best plans, and training but fail to act that gets us into trouble. This is generally referred to as analysis paralysis or there are so many contingency plans – we don’t know which one to use.
So, these are my personal tips for preparing for the worst:
1) Define your worst. What is the worst thing that can happen? Some things are not under your control, but do you have an action plan for your worst? You might also ask you what is keeping you awake at night? This may help you define your worst.
2) What resources are at your disposal if the worst should happen? If your worst is that your house may burn down in a wildfire – where would you go? Who would you contact? What insurance is in place? How would you communicate with family? The list could go on. From a professional level, what would you do if your company went bankrupt? What is your plan B?
3) What training do you have that you can utilize if the worst should happen? In my case, it was media training. In someone else’s, it may be logistics or counseling. If you don’t have the skills currently, you might consider working on them or making sure that you have someone or some reference that you can access in the event of worst happening.
4) What is your moral compass? Let’s look at the worst being someone has falsified data or made a false reporting to a regulatory agency or maybe you are being asked to do something you feel is unethical or dishonest. What are you going to do? How are you going to balance the request with your personal values. From my personal history, I found it to be quite liberating when I knew that I could find employment somewhere else if needed, e.g. I might be laid off, or I was fired. I knew that I had a Plan B and could implement it. Granted – I may have to make some significant changes in my lifestyle but I knew I would be alright. Each individual has to assess this situation personally and discuss it with your life partner if necessary, but you need to know where your line is drawn.
5) Know your support system. This is different than the resource item above as this relates to you as a leader. No matter which path you take during that situation; someone is likely to second guess or point out your errors. Even if history evaluates it as the most “perfect” of ways to respond, there will always be the advantage of hindsight and having more information than you had at the time. You will have to act based on the information that you have at that point in time and based on your best analysis of the situation. Because of this, there is and will be an emotional toll on you as a leader. You will need to have someone to discuss your feelings, and be a sounding board. You will need this personal support.
As we deal with events sometimes difficult and sometimes catastrophic, each of us has to make what we feel are the right decisions at the time. Mistakes are likely to be made and hopefully there will be an opportunity to address those mistakes or that the mistakes don’t make the situation worse. We have to assess and act based upon that assessment. And, we have to evaluate our personal skills as well as those around us. These five tips are not a “silver bullet” but they can help you to prepare and build up your personal emergency response kit .