On Tuesday, we concluded the IBTTA workshop on Incident Management, Safety and Security in Denver. There were so many excellent speakers and moderators and so many wonderful exchanges in the question and answer sessions, it’s impossible to summarize the entire meeting in a small space. Instead, I offer a few of the observations I shared with the assembled delegates at the conclusion of the meeting. Here goes…
On a blisteringly hot day in southern California, a team of professional firefighters struggled to contain a blaze in a forested area that had burned out of control for several days. In the process of scouting the best routes of attack and escape, several members of the team became separated from their comrades. One small group consisted of the team leader and two or three less experienced firefighters. All at once, they realized that they would soon be engulfed in flames if they did not take immediate action. The less experienced firefighters wanted to retreat; their leader urged them to stay with him. A moment later, the less experienced fighters fled on foot to seek safety. Their leader took the bold and unconventional step of entering the flames in order to save himself. Striking a match, he threw it into the underbrush where it started to burn very rapidly. Within seconds, a small circle of grass had burned completely and the leader immediately jumped into the circle. Having removed the fuel from the path of the larger, oncoming blaze, the leader fell to the ground and protected himself as best he could.
In the end, the quickly advancing blaze leapt over the spot where the leader lay and he survived; all of his companions who departed perished in a wall of flames a short distance away.
This story and eight others appear in a fascinating book called The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All by Michael Useem.
The story about the firefighters could be considered both a disaster and a triumph. It was certainly a disaster because several team members perished in the fire. We learn in the story that this particular leader and team had not worked together for very long. The leader was also somewhat reticent about sharing his plans and thoughts with his subordinates. This lack of experience working together, the less than adequate communication skills, and the failure to develop a trusting relationship all contributed to the death of the other firefighters.
On the other hand, you might consider the actions taken by the leader to be something of a triumph. In a moment of grave crisis, he kept calm and invented a new way to escape a quickly advancing wall of flame. His very elegant solution was literally to enter the blaze before the deadly flames reached him. He drew upon years of experience fighting fires to invent a completely novel solution, a solution that was both bold and untested but also completely appropriate for the circumstances. He entered the fire to escape it.
I hope that none of us ever has to confront an advancing wall of flame and be forced to make a split-second decision about survival. But, on a daily basis, all of us do face difficult choices and make decisions, well grounded in experience and intuition, that lead to the survival or perhaps even the triumph of our organizations and the people we serve. This is what the leadership moment is about. It’s about tapping into the wellspring of experiences that reside in us and using experience, intuition and trained initiative to create novel solutions to the incidents, challenges and crises we had never faced before.
If there is one major takeaway that I draw from all of the presentations and tabletop exercises during this meeting, it is the importance of collaboration, rehearsal and TRUST. We heard about the importance of these attributes again and again.
Over the last two and a half days, we have together looked at many different tools, techniques, strategies, and technologies to confront and solve incident management, safety, and security challenges. The most effective of these tools seems to be TRUST.
It’s a simple tool to use once you own it, but usually it takes time to acquire it. It demands time, patience, testing, and continual investments of goodwill and open-mindedness. It’s not something that you can turn on at a moment’s notice. It is something that requires the building up of strong relationships over time, relationships that are nurtured by honesty, mutual respect, and deference to the needs and interests of others. It’s hard. It’s hard to create trust, but it is probably one of the most important investments of time and energy we can make to prepare to deal with the incidents we face on our facilities.
– Pat Jones