Leadership 12: “We have a situation!”

Art Credit: Arts Technica

The role of the leader is to restore order and calmness when there is none.

Even when we have established a calm, predictable work environment, thee are four situations which can send the team spinning out of balance unless the leader steps in and asserts control.

In a Nutshell: From time to time the leader is called upon to step up and take control because conditions have changed in the office.  The four situations include an actual emergency which is very rare; unimportant urgencies which are all too common and threaten to distract us from what is important and are often best ignored; important urgencies which require a measured response from the leader; and crises which test the leader’s ability to reestablish order and restore calm to a situation where there is neither.  There are eight steps the leader takes when addressing both important urgencies and a crisis: 1. Clearly define what the new situation is.  2. Clearly define what the new goal is.   3. Use the urgency of the situation in a positive way by giving your team permission to determine how to solve the crisis. 4. Be decisive.  5. Clearly describe the immediate steps to be taken. 6. Monitor progress on the steps you have designated, and incorporate new information which may indicate a course correction in how to achieve the goal. 7. Make yourself available to actively deal with the anxiety created by the situation.

The four unpredictable situations a leader has to contend with.

“We have an emergency.”

In the absence of a fire, active shooter, or tornado sighting, the phrase “We have an emergency” is a generally not appropriate for the workplace, because by its very nature it will spike the adrenaline in your team.  Few situations in the office require a “flight or fight” response which our body will generate automatically when it believes it is in danger, such as when someone utters the “E” word.

Because an actual emergency in he office is rare, when they do occur they tend to be catastrophic because people are completely unprepared mentally and tactically.  To prepare your team you should have plans in place for how your team will respond to fires, and the other types of emergencies common to your area – earthquake, wildfires, tornados, etc.  Having been a firefighter I always check my emergency exit when I enter a building, and my first day tour of our building with a new hire always included pointing out the two fire exits because an emergency is just as likely to happen on their first day at work as on any other day.

When an emergency is not an emergency.

I had a boss rush into my office and shout, “We have an emergency!”  Knowing my boss, I kept typing and replied, “I doubt that.  In the fire department I observed that an emergency involves someone laying on the ground, a ring of people standing around crying, and me ending up with blood on my shirt.  In the absence of those factors, I assume what we have here is ‘a situation’ and let us calmly resolve it.”  Oddly enough, the boss found that neither entertaining, nor helpful.  But we did manage to find the spare toner for the printer.

The problem with mislabeling these four types of “situations.”

When we label a new task as ‘an emergency’ or ‘extremely urgent’ it will automatically be moved to the top of the to-do list and will often crowd out things that are “actually important.”   This problem often comes from the type of boss who is not calm, and therefore likely to be triggered into panic by insignificant incidents.  And another source of this panic is a boss who has never properly prioritized the work of the team, and therefore can’t identify which tasks are truly important.  All situations which arise unexpectedly in the office must be approached with calm, reasoned planning to guide your team’s response.

Phrases which are not helpful in an office setting:

And while we are on the subject of proper nomenclature, could we agree to ban the following phrases from the office vocabulary:

“By Close of Business”

“Extremely Urgent”


I once had a boss rush in and try to drop a job on me.  I glanced at it and saw it was less important than what I was working on. “When do you need it by?” I asked.


“Then you should have given it to me day before yesterday, because I can’t do it today.”

Another blackmark for my Annual Review, but I can’t magically produce more hours in the work day.

Unimportant Urgencies

Credit: adapted from SkyDanceMountain.com

These are the all-too pervasive poor relations to false emergencies,  they arise when a supervisor sees a shiny object and decides that your team must drop what they are doing, pivot, and in most cases, immediately ride off in all directions in an attempt to accomplish something significantly less important than what they had been working on.

No matter how well we plan, from time-to-time a situation arises we are asked to immediately address that has been incorrectly labeled “urgent.”  Before we act, we need to ask how important is this urgent matter.  Often it is not important, or perhaps it is important to someone, but not our team.  In those situations we should try and reason with the person making the request, comparing the actual importance of what our team is working on with the new task. 

What to do when you must address an unimportant urgency.

“Just because you managed to create a problem for yourself doesn’t mean that I have to have a problem, too.” Office Manager Nancy Thompson, Legal Services Office in Ottumwa, Iowa,

No Nonsense Nancy

As a leader you will be faced urged to address unimportant urgencies which you consider a waste of time. Obviously there is a power dynamic here which may not be in your favor, but when possible the leader must say “No, my team does not have the staff, time, or resources to do that now, but we will get to it as soon as possible.”  In my experience, when the boss allows you a short postponement, 75% of the time you never hear about the unimportant project again, because with time, either the boss sees it is unimportant or just plain forgets about it.

When a leader is being pressured to change course, one option should always be considered – always consider doing nothing.  Sometimes the best decision is to just say “no” and keep going as planned.  

Credit: Reddit, Miss Lemon Sunshine

(Historical note: In the late 80’s and early 90’s First Lady Nancy Reagan’s contribution to the “War on Drugs” was encouraging children to simply say no to drugs. Because this program would be 100% successful when universally followed, if you never tasted sin, you’d never be a sinner, late night comedians sought to expand the program.  For the War on Depression they suggested : Just Cheer Up!  And the War on Insomnia: Just Get a Good Night’s Sleep! The War on Crime: Getting robbed? Just Say No!)

“Quick and dirty”

But back to the situation where the boss insists on interrupting your team’s important work?  I would always selected as few team members as possible to drop what they were doing and take on the new task, I would explain that I we had to accept this task, so we had to make a set a new plan, develop our step-by-step approach and get it done as quickly as possible.  I often implemented plans we called, “quick and dirty” meaning do it as fast and as superficially as possible, giving it the level of effort appropriate for its level of unimportance.  In cleaning my Mom called it, “The once over lightly.” My Dad had an expression as he surveyed once of his rickety carpentry projects, “That’s good enough for government work.”  Make addressing unimportant urgencies a learning opportunity to teach your team when “that’s good enough” is an important level of effort.

Dealing with Important Urgencies and Crises

An important urgency is a development which requires a shift in how the resources of your team are deployed.  For instance, the boss wants a quarterly summary of the team’s activity for the past quarter, and they want it as soon as possible.  Well isn’t that a nuisance!  But it is important because the boss wants it and it means you must call your team together and redirect them.

A Crisis is something that threatens the team.  For instance, a funder demands a complicated report ASAP because they think you have failed to spend your grant appropriately and you need to stop your team, and get them working on that report or risk losing the money which could doom your whole project.

While the redirection required for an important urgency may just annoy the team, the crisis may put the team in a panic which will hinder their ability to respond.  It is when the leader is facing a crisis that their true leadership ability is tested, does the team trust them enough to follow the new path in a calm way?  The leader must act calmly, and sometimes it’s just acting. 

We are going to use scenes from the movie Apollo 13 to demonstrate the steps to take when dealing with an important urgency or a crisis, and after that we will talk about how to prepare yourself to appear calm.

1. Clearly define what the situation is right now. 

2. Clearly define what the new goal is.  

3. Use the urgency of the situation in a positive way by giving your team permission to determine how to solve the crisis.

4. Be decisive. 

5. Clearly describe the immediate steps to be taken to implement your decision.

6. Monitor progress on the steps you designated, and incorporate new information which may indicate a course correction in how to achieve the goal.

7. Make yourself available to actively deal with the anxiety created by the situation.

Using the Apollo 13 response as an example of exceptional crisis management.

Hopefully your crisis in the office will not be as extreme as an explosion on a space capsule, but the steps to resolving it will be the same.  For a little background I am drawing from NASA and The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum for this description of the Apollo 13 mission. In 1970 Apollo 13 was to be the third mission to land on the Moon. An explosion in one of the oxygen tanks triggered by an electrical spark crippled the spacecraft during flight when it was 200,000 miles from Earth. Ground controllers in Houston faced a formidable task in devising a way to get the crew home alive as they Apollo 13 was forced to swing around the Moon and use its gravitational pull to slingshot the capsule back toward Earth. Completely new procedures had to be imagined and tested in the simulator before being passed up to the crew. The ground controllers had to devise a method of powering down the craft for three days and then hope they could power it bac back up in an unconventional manner. In the movie Tom Hanks plays the role of James A. Lovell Jr., Commander onboard Apollo 13. 

Meanwhile, back on Earth . . .

The next clip is at the Space Center Houston, the two main characters in charge of dealing with the emergency are Gene Kranz, NASA Chief Flight Director (played by Ed Harris) and John Aaron, a flight controller in charge of the Lunar Module’s power supply, with specific responsibility for the electrical, environmental and communications systems on board the spacecraft (played by Loren Dean.)  We will watch the full scene and then break it down to demonstrate the steps for dealing with an important urgency or a crisis. These clips came from Fandango Movie Clips.

Failure is not an option!

What are the steps in dealing with a crisis?

“00DA – Observe what is going on, Orient yourself, Decide what to do, and Act!” Marine General James Mattis on how to respond to the unexpected crisis.

1. Clearly define what the situation is right now.

The unknown is the enemy of calmness.  The leader can avoid this stressor by clearly defining a new “now,” a new starting point.  “Forget where we were, set aside the priorities we were working on, we now have the following situation.”

Here Gene illustrates their present situation and precisely why it is acceptable.  Note that he foregoes the blame game.  It is not important who got you into this mess, or why it happened. What’s important is working as a team to get you back out of the situation.  You can do your causal analysis after the dust settles to see if there is a way to avoid this happening again.

2. Define the new goal.

If you can clearly describe a new destination, a new goal, create an image of what success will look like, people will begin to settle down and start thinking of ways to get there.

Once they have a target on horizon, they begin to work out the path to it.

3. Use the urgency in a positive way by giving your team permission to determine how to solve the crisis.

The leader often does not have the knowledge or skills to devise the solution, and therefore the team must be set free to do what they are good at.  Someone on the team has the idea that will spark the creativity needed to solve the problem.

Giving the team the autonomy to work the problem  will provide your team with a feeling of involvement, and the heightened arousal level caused by the urgency will stimulate creativity.  You will be putting power into the hands of those with the skills and experience to solve the problem.

4. Be decisive.

Once your team has had time to analyze the situation and come up with possible solutions, you need to hear them out, then MAKE THE DECISION!  You can  change course later based on new information, but for now, make the damned decision and get your team going!

5. Clearly state the immediate steps to be taken to implement your decision.

After listening to your teams’ input, and deciding on a course of action, then lay out the precise steps the team should take immediately to get them going. 

6. Monitor progress on the steps you designated, and incorporate new information which may indicate a course correction in how to achieve the goal.

Credit: Ammo.com

7. Make yourself available to actively deal with the anxiety.

Now more than ever the leader must lead.  Your team should already trust you and hopefully they will come to you if they are feeling overwhelmed.  But you have a duty to check in regularly, casually, to check progress, to take their temperature, to determine who is doing well, and who needs a chat and a pick me up.

Throughout the Apollo 13 crisis new problems cropped up which had to be dealt with using these exact same steps.  As you address your situation, be prepared to bring your team together to examine new twists in solving the problem.

Learning to deal calmly with exceptional circumstances.

Some people are given the opportunity to practice reacting to emergencies.  In the fire department the opportunity to practice remaining calm in the face of life or death emergencies was commonplace.  Some people respond well, others struggled to maintain focus when all hell is breaking loose around them.

Captain Sully and Flight 1549

I want to include this video of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s successfully landing US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. Two things to look out for, how calm the pilot is, as well as the air traffic controllers; and how the Captain uses most of the steps we have been talking about for dealing with a crisis.

Let’s look at how Captain Scully uses the steps we talked about to address this crisis.

1. Clearly define what the new situation is. 

Pilot: “Mayday mayday mayday. uh this is uh Cactus fifteen thirty nine hit birds, we’ve lost thrust in both engines. . .”

2. Clearly define what the new goal is.  

Pilot: “. . . we’re turning back towards LaGuardia (airport)”

4. Be decisive. 

Air Traffic Controller: “Cactus fifteen twenty nine, if we can get it for you do you want to try to land runway one three?”

Pilot: “we’re unable. we may end up in the Hudson.”

5. Clear describe the immediate steps to be taken.

Pilot to passengers: “This is the Captain, brace for impact.”

This is an example of a professional responding to a crisis as he has been trained to do. But you don’t have to face emergencies regularly to begin today to prepare yourself for when your moment comes.

This appearance of calmness can be learned.

Maintaining a calm demeanor when all hell is breaking loose can be learned.  Often it is nine parts acting, because if the leader appears calm, the team will absorb their calmness and be able to focus on the task at hand.

“Attitudes are caught, not taught.” Mr. Fred Rogers.

“Deliberate calm” is a term airline pilots use to describe the ability to maintain a state of relative calm during a potentially disastrous situation shown by Captain Sully. “Deliberate calm” is learned through conscious effort and regular practice. This is very similar to mindfulness, a process of engaging in a deliberate and focused awareness of your surroundings at this moment, not thinking about the past or the future, but the moment right before you..

The calm demeanor I learned to display in the fire department was useful in the legal world.

The need for Zen-like calmness at ProBAR 1989-1991

In 1989 I was asked to start a program in Harlingen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley down at the southern tip of Texas on the border with Mexico.  The program provided pro bono (free) legal representation to people who were in deportation proceedings and who were locked up behind bars in the Port Isabel Service Processing Center (“PISPC.)  It was a program funded by the American Bar Association (“ABA”), the State Bar of Texas, and the American Immigration Lawyers Association (“AILA”).  During my time as leader in the ProBAR office down in Harlingen, Texas we had scores of volunteer lawyers coming down to the Rio Grande Valley for weeks or months at a time to represent Central Americans in their political asylum hearings.  Most of these lawyers had been associates in their law firms for many years, and most had spent all their time handling paper.  Many had never met an actual client, never been inside a courtroom. The two lawyers below were the exception, highly trained immigration attorneys.

Fortunately, I had Jennifer Bailey as my assistant and together we did a miraculous job mentoring the lawyers and keeping them calm as they tackled the daunting challenge of representing someone in immigration court in what could be a life or death hearing. Throughout future leadership posts you will see references to my time at ProBAR because every month it was like I was reopening the office with a new slate of inexperienced volunteer lawyers. I had to quickly make them feel calm, supported, confidant and gain their trust, while occasionally cleaning up their well-intended, but harmful mistakes.  When these lawyers made mistakes I had to maintain the appearance of common contemplation  because if I had shown the even slightest sign of alarm they would gone completely to pieces.  One incident in particular stands out. 

A volunteer lawyer came back from immigration court at the detention center and said, “I ran into the government attorney for the hearing I have tomorrow and she asked me if it would be alright if we could just stipulate to something or other and I didn’t know what he was talking about so I assumed it was normal so I agreed.  Was I wrong?”

I sat back, put my feet up on the desk.

“Well that’s interesting,” I said.  I took a few deep breaths to quiet the panic which was surging though my system. When my vision cleared, Jennifer, the volunteer lawyer and I brainstormed a new approach to tomorrow’s hearing in light of these new, devastating developments.   I made this a gentle learning experience for the volunteer lawyer by lying and saying that this was not a major error, no harm, no foul, but in the future it will be fine for him to tell the government attorney that he can’t agree to anything without talking to me or Jennifer first.

After the lawyer left, Jennifer closed the door and said, “I think I have broken your code.  When you sit back, put your feet on the desk, and say, ‘Well that’s interesting.’ What you really mean is, ‘Now we are totally fucked.’” 

And I had to agree with her.

Prepare yourself for a serious situation by imagining yourself calm reacting to a problem, be the actor playing the role of Captain Sully when you need to project calmness for your team.

Tips on making the hard decisions and being decisive.

One of the most frustrating things for a team to deal with is an indecisive leader.  But one of the problems with being a leader is having to make difficult decisions when you can’t find a good solution. My co-worker Tanisha once noted that sometimes you have only two choices, and they are both bad.  But as a leader you need to make the hard decision, explain what the new normal is, describe a vision of where the team is going so they can keep their eye on the horizon, and work with the team to develop the best way to arrive.

Credit: abajournal.com

Tanisha Bowens-McCatty

A decision making procedure to consider: Consensus Minus One – and sometimes the one left out is you!

When you have given your team the autonomy to determine how to do a job they may come up with a perfectly good solution which is not your first choice, and sometimes you have to let the team have their way in what I call “consensus minus one.” In my hippy-groovy days I hung out in group houses in Ames, Iowa where everything had to be done by consensus. My friend Mary Lorenzen posted this picture of one such house.

Credit: Mary Lorenzen

When visiting one of the group houses in Ames, Iowa I picked up a decision-making strategy which I used when I was I was leading social justice law offices: “consensus minus one.”  Most groups houses required a consensus to make a decision affecting the house, everyone was allowed to have their say on issues framed as “should we do A, or should we do B?”  And debate would continue until they could agree unanimously on one course of action.  And this consensus requirement was the death of many groups because it could lead to long hours of argument over minutiae (what brand of local butter to buy) and it took only one person refusing to budge to prevent any movement forward.  But “consensus minus one,” allowed a decision to be made even when there was one holdout.  If everyone except one person agreed, then the decision was made and the group moved onto the next item on the agenda.  And the dissenter at least felt their arguments had been heard and considered, but they lost fair and square under the rules of the house.  I used this strategy when I was in charge of two offices and sometimes it turned out I was the “minus one,” but I learned it was worth losing the occasional argument to empower my team.

Coming attractions: Leadership 13: Building Trust on Your Team.  “If people like you, they will listen to you, but if they trust you, they will follow you anywhere.” Douglas R. Satterfield

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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