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Leadership principles are the key to successful excerises

Lt. Col. Thomas Swiderek
6th Air Mobility Wing Deputy Director of Staff
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Lt. Col. Thomas Swiderek

Airman 1st Class Brian Smith,
6th Communication Squadron

In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, I hear discussions about the role of leadership during the decades of preparation for such a catastrophe. The lessons learned from that storm will be analyzed for years to come and I don't want to address any specific issues associated with the Katrina response. This situation does however provide a chance for us all to look in the mirror and discuss leadership considerations when preparing for any crisis.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said about crisis response, "In the movies they show in crises people running around picking up telephones, yelling into telephones, doing things...what in fact happens in crises is that everybody is in their foxhole and occasionally throws a message out that they weren't responsible." As we all have seen, this statement at times has come very close to reality, but that doesn't mean we have to resemble the remark.

Effectively handling a crisis requires a myriad of critical pieces to come together at the right time and place. Dynamic leadership is key to making this happen but this leadership can not begin on the day of the crisis. To be better prepared, the leadership must be actively engaged from the very beginning by properly identifying potential crises and utilizing risk management skills to prioritize limited resources needed to mitigate the threats. Leadership must then be actively engaged in developing plans, training personnel, evaluating response and following up to correct problems. Don't forget, this entire cycle must also be assessed on a regular basis for improvements.

A discussion on a list of actions like this could fill books. So, I will mention a few key points about them but I will mostly focus on exercises. Exercises are a very common occurrence for military personnel but effective leadership is really what makes it all worth the time and effort. I have seen too many man-hours wasted during exercises because leadership did not take an active role. I have also seen a well executed, two-hour exercise accomplish what a dozen other, much longer, exercises attempted but never came close to achieving.

Leaders must continually assess the environment for potential threats. When it comes to crisis response, there are countless events that could wreak havoc but the likelihood, vulnerability and the risk must all be weighed. For the military, headquarters guidance directs specific types and frequency of exercises but leaders should never take these requirements as the standard…it should be considered the minimum. On Sept 10, 2001, few organizations factored rogue airliner scenarios very highly into their threat considerations. Times change. Threats change. Preparation must be dynamic to keep one step ahead.

In addition to required exercises, locally generated exercises should be considered in response to the leader's assessment. Plans should exist or be developed that help the unit work through these crises. Despite German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke's statement, "No plan survives contact with the enemy," leaders should utilize plans as a framework to ensure sufficient preparation and coordination has been accomplished. These plans should focus on processes and not necessarily just the details of dealing with specific functions. If the processes are not sound and flexible, there is no hope of a plan ever surviving contact with the enemy.

In order for an exercise to be effective, it is imperative that its objectives be clearly defined. This sounds like a simple task but if a leader relies on others to determine exercise objectives, that leader is relinquishing any role in determining unit effectiveness to handle the potential crisis. Even though others may be process experts, it is the leader that must steer the boat. Otherwise, we end up seeing too much truth in the saying: "I must hurry, for there they go and I am their leader." When leaders ensure objectives are clear, relevant and measurable, only then can a roadmap be developed by the evaluators to assess processes.

Evaluators must be functional experts of the highest caliber. They must be familiar with the regulations but also constantly looking for process success. If a regulation prohibits or hinders a process, the evaluators must proactively go to the source, identify the problem and then work to remove, modify or clarify the hurdle. The evaluators must also avoid overlooking the simple parts of a process.

During an exercise I observed many years ago, a plan required use of a secure phone to contact an outside agency from a mobile unit. For many previous exercises, the evaluator looked for the secure phone and was satisfied when it was displayed. For an evaluator to be effective, second and third order issues need to be selectively scrutinized. In this case, the evaluator decided to dig and asked to use the phone. He asked for the key and picked it up to see if it worked.

A simple step in the existing plan became a huge issue because the wrong key was with the phone. Once the correct key was delivered, the phone needed to be synchronized. There was an intermittent power problem to the phone that was quickly fixed but the phone number listed in the plan had changed two years earlier. The extra few minutes the evaluator took uncovered a roadblock that would have added unnecessary stress during an actual crisis.

So what are some immediate actions a leader can take to make the exercise process more effective?

1. Establishing a positive mindset is critical. If leaders look at an exercise as simply another chance to get in trouble, all the participants are impacted. Remember, an exercise is not the final exam, it is simply a quiz. A headquarters inspection might be considered a test but handling the crisis for real…that is the final exam.

2. Spend time developing objectives. Work closely with the evaluators. Utilize the exercise as an opportunity to identify challenges with processes you own. Take advantage of this opportunity.

3. Aggressively follow up with identified issues. The only type of observation that causes me the most concern is repeat observations.

Exercises can be a great way for us to get away from the daily grind. Digging a foxhole with chem gear on my not be preferable to your normal job but understanding the threat helps the participants become much more motivated to train as we fight. Mr. Kissinger's opening quote never mentions where the leaders are during the crisis…obviously in his example there were none.

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