Leading through disasters

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Chad Gemeinhardt
  • 21st Civil Engineer Squadron commander
In the past 18 months, I have definitely had a few more experiences and challenges than most at leading large teams through difficult events. These include aircraft crash and recovery operations, environmental issues in the local area, sensitive projects in austere locations, natural disaster recovery and weather events.

There remains only one constant. Challenges will happen to us all. I’ve learned a few things through these events and we must be prepared to lead through them.

No matter how much you study leadership in books, professional military education or observe others, there is no comparison to practice. As commanders, we must give our junior members the opportunity to test their skills. They must be empowered to make decisions and, most importantly, make mistakes.

Those practical lessons are instrumental in their professional development as young officers and NCOs. We don’t want junior members making their first decisions in a deployed environment or not capable of making decisions at all. These small tests not only allow members to work as groups toward a common goal, but also provide insight into their personal emotions. Passion can be a tremendous strength, but unchecked it can cloud decisions and take away from sound logical arguments.

Finally, experiences matter in both frequency, variety and complexity. Leading a group of peers is no easy task. The small practice events create the building blocks for larger events. When a challenge presents itself, there are a few recommendations that I hope every person will keep in mind.

Be patient
Almost always, the first reports are not 100 percent accurate. If acted on too quickly, an organization may not have the full picture, and posture incorrectly to respond. Instead, begin to process the initial information and reports, and take action only after data has been received and confirmed.

Remember the basics
We all have extensive training in processes and systems, but that cannot replace the basic blocking and tackling of decision making. Simple processes and basic tools can be just as effective in analyzing the situation, defining the problem and determining course of action. New, sophisticated technology and tools aren’t always more beneficial than basic checklists, dry erase boards, grease pencils and maps. An organization can quickly overthink decisions with too much data and risk delays by waiting for 95 percent of the information necessary.

Lastly, remember to prioritize. Leadership at various levels comes down to simple prioritization of resources and effort. Most of us don’t have the luxury of having unlimited resources, therefore we must learn to prioritize. Our teams and subordinates expect us to provide that guidance. Without it, the recovery and response may be jeopardized.

After every event, it’s extremely important to perform an after-action assessment in your organization to solve any problems that may have occurred and determine ways to improve. I would argue that every leader should also perform a self-assessment of his or her own actions. The moment these challenges arrive can be as much a test of your leadership skills as it is a test of your team’s ability to respond.

My mentors have always divulged a little wisdom that I continue to find universal merit in. They are humility, seek advice and trust your gut. Humble leaders recognize they do not have all the answers and bring teams together to solve problems. This rolls into seeking advice, which isn’t to be confused with delegating responsibility. Advice is helpful in understanding additional viewpoints in the most complicated situations. As commanders, we regularly seek advice from peers, senior enlisted and other wing agencies.

Finally, there is no substitute for trusting your gut. Unfortunately, 100 percent of the data necessary to make a decision is very rare. In my experience, less than 70 percent is much more common. As leaders, we must act and take risks. Your experience and instincts are honed over time and inform you of the correct path forward.

Don’t forget to listen. Our internal bias and previous experiences can lock us into preselected courses of action that may not be the most effective or efficient solution. We must be aware of these biases, prevent the desire to rush to a specific solution, and remember that not allowing the process to happen shortchanges those junior members watching your actions.

I hope this information can be helpful when the next event occurs. We are all better if we share lessons learned. Success and failure, regardless of the event, requires a team effort. I’m proud to be part of the number one space wing team in Air Force Space Command. Go Knights!