Facing the Unimaginable, and Leading Anyway

Imagine you go to work and a crazed gunman blasts his way into the building. What do you do? Call the police? Hide under your desk? Run towards the shooter, as Principal Dawn Hochsprung seems to have done?

Imagine you go to work and an airplane hits your building. Do you start running down hundreds of flights of stairs? Do you stay, to help your coworkers evacuate? Do you jump from the window?

Or, imagine that you're heading home from work. A man is pushed onto the subway tracks. Do you watch, horrified, as the train bears down? Do you pull him back onto the platform? Or do you snap a photo with your cell phone?

Horribly, this is our world. And the answer we know we would like to give is not the answer many of us would actually live. Of course I wish I were the kind of person who ran towards the shooter. I'd like to think I would help my coworkers escape the collapsing building, that I'd pull that man back to safety.

But would I, really?

The answer isn't just about how brave you are, or how virtuous. It isn't just about who is a leader, and who a follower. It's about practice.

Why did the teachers at Sandy Hook lock their doors and hide their kids? Yes, because they are good, brave, decent people. But also because they had training. They knew what to do because they'd practiced it in drills.

The military understands the value of training like this, and works very hard to make sure that when soldiers are confronted by the reality of violence, they respond both with violence and with respect for the rules of engagement. Because despite what most action movies would have us believe, most human beings have such an innate abhorrence for violence that even when confronted with an existential threat, we still seek to avoid hurting another person. For instance, in the book On Killing, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman writes about how military trainers realized that despite becoming very good marksmen by firing at targets, their shooters were overcome with revulsion by the actual gore their bullets eventually produced in combat. To get past this, the trainers started using pig bladders stuffed with innards in practice missions, so that when you shot the target it exploded in a way that was chillingly lifelike. That way, when it happened in real life, you'd just keep fighting.

Here's the problem for today's leaders, whether they work in schools or office buildings or military bases: It's impossible to follow this model of practice-by-making-it-seem-real because we don't always know what we're practicing for.

Episodes of violence are not the only extreme situation that a leader may need to confront. If the unthinkable unfolds, how will you protect the people in your charge? How will you prepare for that moment if it is, by definition, unthinkable? So perhaps a better question than, "What would you do?" is: "How can you practice leadership if you don't know when or where you'll be called to lead?"

I have no idea how to answer that question, so I called someone with experience training people to lead under harsh and uncertain circumstances — Casey Haskins, the former Director of Military Instruction at West Point.

"It's a hard one," he said, "Because when we make decisions very quickly under stress, we don't usually have access to a full understanding of the situation, and we don't have access to all of our calm, rational resources."

And yet, he told me, even if you don't know the specifics, "your odds are much better if you act than if you don't." Why? Because "if you're already acting, that by itself helps you remain calm."

Where it goes wrong, he added, is when you over-train for specific situations, so that instead of instilling problem-solving that will work any situation, "it becomes an automatic, robot-like response without deliberate thought. If you try to make it decision-free, which is the all-too-common approach, then you make it very likely that [the response] won't quite fit the circumstance."

Instead, you have to train so that what you're really practicing is staying calm, thinking quickly, and problem-solving.

"Deliberate thinking itself becomes a drilled, automatic response. Your decisions will still have a very high error rate — your error rate making decisions under stress is much higher than when you're calm, rational, talking like we are right now — but that is still better than the error rate you'll have if you do nothing."

As easy as it that is to say, it's difficult to do.

For instance, I'm a pretty decent thinker, but I'm not very good at acting. And I'm even worse at staying calm. Confronted with chaos, I tend to swear loudly and repeatedly before making a list — instead of a difference. And I work in a business, and for an industry, in which too often "thought leadership" is confused with actual leadership.

But if we practice staying calm, thinking deliberately, and — critically — taking action, we will be practicing leadership. The key is to do it when you don't think it counts. That's when practice is the most important; if you wait until you think it matters, you have missed your chance.

Perhaps, little by little, by practicing leadership we may find ourselves actually leading.

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