When Failure is Not an Option: Leading in Times of Crisis

Leonard Deonarine

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Feb 22, 2023

Failure is never an option when it comes to the safety of your family, business or community. At some point, you may be the one they turn to in a crisis, emergency or disaster to lead them to the best possible outcome. However, certain thought processes and behaviors can interfere with your ability to make critical decisions and effectively manage the incident, ultimately preventing a successful emergency response.

Not Knowing Who’s in Charge

One of the first decisions that needs to be made is who has the authority and responsibility to take charge of the situation. This should be established well in advance. If you don’t know who would be in charge of managing a problem, it is best to start asking now. Far too often, people assume someone else is going to take the leadership role. Other times, multiple people believe they are in charge. In either case, without a defined leader, the time available to effectively intervene decreases while frustration increases.

Believing You Can Handle the Crisis on Your Own

Another pathway to failure is believing you alone can handle all aspects of the crisis. Nothing is further from the truth. As circumstances take a turn for the worse, you may not even realize the conditions have changed. In complex situations, where you are planning for an upcoming event or attempting to manage an ongoing incident, the Incident Command System (ICS) is a management tool you can rely upon to keep you out of trouble.

Effective use of the ICS is the standard by which you will be measured, along with the outcomes of the situation. The ICS was refined by the study of management failures where critical decisions needed to be made under incredible time pressure, with few available facts. ICS has features, forms and assignments that allow you to divide the crisis into manageable pieces and assign capable people to address each challenge.

If you are the Incident Commander (IC), your job is to evaluate how your team is solving the challenges. If they are not making progress, then additional personnel resources need to be provided or responsibilities need to be reassigned. Ultimately, the ICS structure provides an effective team-based response with a common operating doctrine to support the response for the multiple entities involved.

Thinking You Should Be at the Center of the Incident

Imagine if a fire broke out on a plane that was flying across the country and you saw the pilot and co-pilot rushing to the rear of the plane to help fight the fire. Their efforts would be heroic and important, but someone should be flying the plane.

Decisions made in the cockpit, such as declaring an emergency, making notifications and rerouting to the nearest airport are just as important as fighting the fire and should be conducted simultaneously. If you are leading the effort to address the crisis, you must be in a location where you have the best ability to think clearly and see problems before they impact your people and plan.

Overcome Pitfalls and Master Incident Leadership

The pitfalls of incident leadership listed here are just a few of the many traps that can lead to failure. Others include a lack of accountability among personnel, an unclear chain of command, poor communication, a lack of decision documentation, weak planning processes, failing to staff up and delegate, and failing to rehearse the incident command process with everyone who has a role in an actual crisis.

Mastering the leadership role in a time of crisis is a skill that requires training, dedication, determination and a humble heart. Jensen Hughes can partner with you and your organization to reach your next level of preparedness and help you become a high-performance crisis leader. Learn more about our Emergency Management Services and Solutions.

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About the author

Leonard Deonarine
Leonard has extensive experience in the emergency preparedness field, having managed the fire, emergency management, and training programs for U.S. Department of Homeland Security, private corporations, and other organizations.