When you hear “First Responder” what imagines come to mind? Ambulances with EMT’s racing to a crash site? Doc’s and nurses rushing COVID patients to an ICU room? A city street strewn with hoses, smoke and fire billowing from high rises, fire trucks hoisting rescuers up 50-foot ladders?

We rightly stand in awe of First Responders (FR’s). Indeed they are incredible leaders, showing up in  times of overwhelming suffering and danger. Somehow they react with calm and urgency while taking 9-1-1 calls or answering distant cries for help, and bring steady leadership into the whirling chaos and confusion. 

But are they the only FR’s in the world? Is this kind of leadership reserved for a few brave souls in high-profile, life-saving jobs? Should not each of us lead like FR’s in times of tension or crisis, at home, school or work? The answer is YES! If you are a leader, you are called up to be a FR more often than you think. So how do you become an effective FR?

Being a First Responder is (NOT) easy as 1-2-3

Crisis leadership demands we see ourselves as FR’s, whether we are teachers, parents, managers, artists or plumbers. Perhaps it is hard to see ourselves in the FR role. But I believe we should. As an FR we can bring our best when we are needed the most. Every challenge calls us to act with courage and focus, even if we are not an EMT or firefighter. Our crises—small or large—can be just as demanding and often the stakes are just as high. Families, corporations, sports teams, colleges, churches, and governments all need leaders who can function as FR’s when the situation arises. But I not going to kid you – the FR role far from easy. 

Here are three difficult perspectives to maintain when taking on the FR leadership role.

1) In a Crisis, There is One Undeniable Truth: You are not in control, but you can gain control!

When confronted with a crisis (your teenager goes rogue, profits evaporate, volunteers quit at the last minute), we’re tempted to become “First Controllers” instead of First Responders. We hastily make decisions without information, move forward without foresight, and act primarily in self-interest. We must fight this impulse to “take control” and instead seek to “gain control” – of emotions, resources, partners and data. 

In the wake of a hurricane a pastor friend of mine found himself in the FR role as power was lost and water engulfed his church along with many homes in the neighborhood. Instead of acting purely on impulse, he assessed reality, found some electric power, hooked up a computer, and instead of personally handing out a nearby truckload of supplies, he organized a distribution system using small groups to deliver necessities to the neediest people first, then to others. You can bet he was not trained for this in seminary. But he became the FR, gained control in (not over) the circumstances, even though things seemed out of control.

2) In a Crisis, There are Two Leadership Axioms

Axiom 1: The First Responder is the defacto leader – until better leaders show up.

Being a FR makes you the first leader on the scene. But like my friend you may be thinking, “I wasn’t trained for this!” While that may be true, you actually do have extensive training – from the School of Life. Gain your composer, and own your FR role until the specialists arrive. 

Many will recall the leadership culture created by CEO Horst Schulze at the Ritz Carlton hotel chain. As an employee, regardless of title or experience, if a guest approached you with a problem it was now your problem. You might not be the facilities manager, but news of a faulty elevator just became your problem to solve, until you can get experts involved. There is no, “Sorry that’s not my job,” at the Ritz. Employees are, in essence, FR’s who assume leadership and seek solutions. You work with what you have until a more experienced leader can step in.

Part of my leadership work includes leading a doctoral program comprised of about 75 leaders from a variety of backgrounds. When I first began to lead the program it was clear it needed restructuring immediately. The strategy required a fresh approach as enrollments had been dropping. The university provided me an assistant to help with basic administrative support. But the program needed more than that, and so did I!  So I said, “You applied for an Admin job but I want to hire you as the Program Manager.” She responded nervously, “I’ve never done that before.” “Well,” I said, “I’ve never directed an academic doctoral program before!” We had urgent needs requiring immediate attention. So as FR’s we rose to the occasion. 

Axiom 2: In a Crisis, View Everyone as a Potential Leader

Well, almost everyone. As a FR and the defacto leader, it’s a mistake to see others as followers to command instead of leaders to deploy. Quickly assess people’s potential to own some of the work, clarify roles, and turn them loose.  Treat them as leaders until proven otherwise. Delegate responsibility, dispense authority, and leverage the expertise you see emerging around you. When you treat others as leaders, you might find them rising to the occasion.

A leader in a major pharmaceutical company told me how he arrived in his leadership role, one usually held by someone with an MD in the field of Gastroenterology. He described his early career change from veterinary school to pharmacology, and his first job in pharma. An opportunity emerged to lead a new team to produce a new GI drug. No one was immediately available to take this strategic role, so he stepped up and said, “I’ll take the role!”  Without an MD he would normally be passed over. But the need was there and he was the FR. He built the team and launched an effective new drug. He’s been leading such teams ever since, hiring doctors to bring the medical expertise he lacks.

In a Crisis, You’ll Experience Three Emotional Triggers

Finally, when chaos and confusion seem to be ruling the day, don’t be surprised how strongly your emotions will kick in, causing hesitation toward becoming the FR. Here’s three common triggers.

Uncertainty

Uncertainty often produces anxiety which leads to a fight, flight or freeze reaction. But it’s a reaction, not a response. As a FR who is a leader, fight the urge to create a false sense of certainty in order to calm fears. Don’t provide trite answers or simple assurances that “all will be ok.” Instead, seek clarity about what you know. 

Clarity is the antidote to our toxic feelings of uncertainty. We actually can control a few things. We can offer clear first steps for our people. We can provide clear roles and responsibilities. These might change during the crisis period, so let’s not assume all roles are long term in nature. Ad hoc teams, spontaneous sub-groups, flat leadership structures, lots of input, and keen listening are essential.

Develop clear chains of authority and clear lines of communication and feedback. Keeping abreast of constantly changing realities is essential, and guards against foolish deployment of resources where they are no longer relevant. Decide the cadence and content of communication, who needs to hear what, and what do we know right now. Create status checks – review emotional health, assess resources, measure progress and name barriers. Talk often…meet briefly. 

Insecurity 

We spend an inordinate amount of time wondering how bad the impact of a crisis will be, and how long we must wrestle with the effects. We will be tempted to wallow in fear and remorse. I recall a family situation where a teenager had been assaulted. The initial terror, fear, rage, grief and sadness were overwhelming. Later a deep sense of insecurity arose. Will we ever feel safe again? Can our family recover? Will justice prevail?   Painful, intense or horrible crises can leave deep emotional wounds and scars. We feel vulnerable about the future. This is often true in the aftermath of natural disasters, crimes, widespread layoffs, grave leadership failures, and times of tragedy or war. 

Though we FR’s may lack professional medical or psychological training, we still can step in. Our presence and comfort, shared by our actions actions and words, go a long way toward bringing hope. As FR’s we can grieve and even weep with friends, family or colleagues. Eventually we can bring hope and support, knowing professionals will do the deeper work. But NEVER withdrawal from people in such times. Resolve not to fix people, but rather to connect with them. It serves as a reminder that the future is a place where friends and colleagues will stand with them.

Obscurity

In a crisis people can feel lost, disoriented and directionless. When cannot see the road ahead, or even assume there is a road! We are forced to find meaning and understanding in the here and now, while everything is still murky. Seems impossible. But there is hope.

Begin with what is NOT obscure. What can we grasp in this moment? First, take a deep breath, get calm, and make a personal inventory. When I experience this feeling I take a moment and reflect – who am I, where am I, and what I needed? I take stock of my strengths and limits, general health and capacity, core skills, available resources, key relationships, and related knowledge or experience I can draw from. Then I ask, “Where am I?” Where am I emotionally, physically, and spiritually, as a leader and as a team member? This is a status check. Then ask, “What is needed?” By pausing to reflect and get centered, I can grasp a few possibilities. Do we need more time, or a single action step, or more learning or analysis or risk assessment? I might not be able to clear away the fog around me, but I can dispel the murkiness within

We are First Responders. As leaders, this is who we are. In a crisis we assess reality and gain control despite the chaos. We recognize this means owning our leadership role and responsibility, while leveraging the potential leadership of others. We are not naïve to the emotional triggers that accompany any crisis situation, regardless of how intense it is. We name them rather than avoid them. We seek and provide hope, comfort and support in a community of friends and family, and act first to remove the fog within us, so we can navigate the fog around us. 

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