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Leading during stressful situations

Everything at my house is a disaster. Yard work, supper, breakfast, sometimes lunch, car repairs, clothes shopping, grocery shopping, unloading after grocery shopping… the list goes on. Through it all, my life at home in a house full of children has helped me to be a better leader when dealing with people in real disasters and stressful events.

Whether you are a cop or firefighter, an emergency manager or a site supervisor, at some time you are going to suddenly be in the middle of what looks like a house full of kids and they will all be looking to you for the perfect answers and the perfect leadership. They’ll never get it (perfect), but you can give them the best you’ve got by focusing on some important aspects of leadership that will get you (and them) through it all.


First, be empathetic. This may not be your gift but give it a try. Put yourself in the situation of the person you are dealing with and with who, you are trying to communicate with. Are they having trouble listening? Perhaps it is because of the stress of the situation or they are worried about their own family back home. Acknowledge that if they are another responder, it is difficult to be at work during a disaster or incident that could affect their loved ones. Be humble and try to understand. Show empathy and appreciation for where they are coming from.

Be truthful. This may have its limits because you don’t know all the details yourself or because things may be on a need-to-know basis, but don’t ever lie to the people you are dealing with or the people that you work with. The thing about disasters and severe incidents like mass casualty events is that they eventually come under scrutiny and whatever you say or communicate will eventually be made a matter of record and people will find out you lied.


It is also a good rule of thumb to just tell the truth because you might suck at lying whereupon people will see right through you and immediately lose confidence. Twice in my career I had to tell a team that I did not think we would make it through the night. That truthfulness bound us together like nothing else I could have said. Mixed with empathy, it brought the whole group together with a resolve I had never experienced with any teams ever before.


If you don’t know everything, promise to attempt to find the answers and return with those answers if you get them.

Be clear but brief. Stressful situations do not call for you to blurt out everything you have ever learned in order to gain confidence. Just communicate clearly and briefly so that what you say can be easily repeated and followed. I know a lot of leaders that just don’t shut up when they are stressed and it does not help those under them at all. Being clear includes being decisive. Don’t postpone making decisions unless you have to. Your people and the people you serve are looking for as many results as they can get as soon as they can get them.


Clarity also means being clear about the objectives or plans for your situation. The plan or objectives subsequently need to be communicated and available to everyone. If you are not going to make a decision, explain clearly and briefly why you are waiting and try to give everyone a timeline on when they might expect a decision.

Prioritize. In dynamic situations there are always too many decisions to make and too many things to keep an eye on. Rarely do you have the staff that it takes to cover everything so list priorities. If you do not triage decisions and actions you will find yourself overwhelmed with a group of people voting no-confidence pretty quickly. Remember, they are looking for your leadership so give it to them. Make the hard choices and choose what absolutely has to be done right this moment.


Keep aware of the risks that surround this situation. Could things get worse? Are there dangers in the response aspect? Are there groups of people around you that will need protection as this progresses? Use your prioritizing skills to determine what the main risks are and address them quickly.

Don’t do it all alone. Empower people around you. In a time like this, you probably do not need to making all of the decisions. If you are a micro-manager, then back off. Choosing who will go back out into the floods to do rescues and what everyone is going to eat later are not decisions that should be made by the same person. Delegate responsibilities. Understanding the positive impact of giving others accountability while you remain involved is critical in times of crisis.


Stay flexible. I know we have NIMS and ICS and all the other letters of the alphabet but stay flexible. Only the Ten Commandments are in stone. Agility is critical and displaying that will gain that back right at the moment you need it from your people. If you fail at an attempt to reach a goal, try again or try something else. Be flexible. Be ready to change the plan even though it is your plan and you are proud of it.

Don’t stop communicating. Frequent, clear and concise updates will keep everyone feeling like they are included and in the loop. Don’t be afraid to repeat things. Everyone needs to hear instructions repeatedly during dynamic events because they are all under stress!

Lastly, don’t throw money at problems. Be creative. As I said earlier, eventually your handling of this situation will come under scrutiny and you need to be a good steward. Explain to your people that you want their help with this and ask that they try to be financially responsible as your situation develops.

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