Great Leaders Don’t React

By David Peterson

How to initiate thoughtful leadership response.

This is perhaps the most basic of involuntary responses: You’re 12, and someone walks up and hits you. You hit them right back. As we grow older, we (hopefully) learn other ways to address that situation without resorting to violence, but the basic instinct is strong for us to react quickly in any given situation.

The flight, fight (or freeze) response is wired into our physiology.

When a crisis happens, our body diverts blood from the brain to the feet and hands to enable either flight or fight. We freeze when we perceive there is no hope. Regardless, the result is that, at a critical time when we need to be our sharpest, our brains have reduced capacity to think, or they shut down altogether. No wonder we utilize such an innate reaction! It doesn’t have to be this way.

You can train yourself to respond instead of react.

A response is very different from a reaction. With a reaction, you get what you get (or deserve). With a response, you are more likely to get what you want. This assumes you know what you want.

The key to a thoughtful response in a crisis situation can be found in the concept of ThinkTime, which we explored in an earlier article. It’s similar to the type of training and preparation that’s performed by a financial institution in case of a robbery. Tellers practice the steps:

  • Follow the instructions of the robber.
  • Make sure they hand over the “bait” money.
  • And, in a perfect situation, no one gets hurt.

But no amount of drills can truly prepare you for the actual event. Many tellers who have passed all the preparation drills flawlessly have panicked during the actual event. It’s about keeping your head in all crises, big and small.

A few years back…

I was fishing on a raft with some friends out in Colorado on the Eagle River. In an effort to help in a situation where I should have remained seated, I attempted to step out of the raft near the bank…and immediately was in water over my head. My action pushed the raft into the fast current with my friend still in the raft. Her husband, a whitewater expert, was on the bank, helpless to stop the raft. So, I was free swimming in the water, and my friend was trying to grab the oars of the raft. Remembering all my whitewater safety instructions over the years, I kept calm and got in the downstream swimming position with my feet out in front to bounce off boulders. My friend kept her head and got into the rowing seat and began to get control of the raft. With both of us calm and focused, we were in a position for a great ending with everyone safe.

Even though the raft was at the river bank and we were about to get out, I still had my lifejacket on and buckled. That is, I was prepared for something bad to occur even though it was unlikely to occur.

How can you practice this level of preparedness in everyday life?

Try this experiment. The next time you are in a mall or other big crowded space, pretend for just a minute that there is an active shooter. What would your response be? Do you run? Fall to the ground? Look for someone near you that would need assistance in fleeing? The more you play this scenario out in your mind, the less likely you would be to panic and simply react in a true active shooter situation.

Even something as simple as training yourself to not be startled when a server drops a tray of dishes will make a big difference in your ability to respond. Some disasters may require an immediate response to remediate the event. If so, seconds count, and you must be clear-headed with maximum capability for thoughtful response.

You must also not be diverted from your thoughtful response based on what others will think.

Choosing the right course of action might not immediately look correct to observers, but the time for reflection is at a post-mortem of the event, not during the event. During the Eagle River rafting incident, there was a place where the water slowed, and I could have made it to the shore. At that moment, my friend in the raft came close by. Thinking it would be less than chivalrous if I didn’t attempt to assist her, I swam to the raft instead of the shore. Big mistake. The rule during a rafting incident where you are free swimming in the rapids is to always get yourself out of danger if the occasion to do so arises. This runs counter to our desire to help others. Because I’d moved toward the raft, my friend had to move farther out into the rapids to avoid running me over, and she went another 150 yards downstream. If I had made the thoughtful response to move out of danger when the opportunity presented, she would have followed me, and we both would have been out of danger sooner. It all turned out okay, but it could have been a real disaster, made worse by my failure to make a good decision at a critical moment of crisis.

Every day, employees at your organization are making reaction versus response decisions, perhaps subconsciously.

  • Do they react or respond to the odd request made by a prospect?
  • Do they react or respond when a key system crashes or are faced with an online intrusion attack?
  • Do you react or respond when you are faced with a disaster for which you are unprepared?

Most of the events we deal with are not life or death decisions to be made in an instant. We have the luxury to carefully think about a situation, consider the outcome that would best suit us or our organization and then put into action a plan that would bring about that result.

As a senior leader, you can begin monthly exercises to improve your staff’s ability to respond. A good place to start is the business continuity planning or disaster recovery planning that all financial institutions are required to complete. Do you think your staff is truly prepared for all those events the plan documents?

Take the robbery scenario. There is a breathing technique used by Navy Seals to keep calm in times of the greatest stress. How beneficial would it be for all frontline staff to practice this? Do you think you could create a different training scenario each month that would greatly increase the capability of everyone in the organization to be better prepared? Perhaps. More likely you will need to gain additional proficiency and have the personal confidence to share this training with others. You just have to decide it is an exercise worth doing and make it happen. Think about it.

David Peterson is chief strategic officer at i7strategies, a consulting and strategic planning firm specializing in financial institutions and the companies that serve them.