Lorenz on Leadership -- Spotting disasters

RANDOLPH AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- "I can hear that train coming down the tracks."

If you're like me, then you've heard people use this analogy to describe an inbound issue or challenge. We all face challenges each and every day -- they are nothing new. The challenges range in significance and in ability to impact our organizations.

Although the potential challenges do have unique characteristics, all have one thing in common: the sooner a leader can spot them, the more a leader can do to manage how the challenge will influence their organization.

In reality, it's pretty easy to know when a train is coming down the tracks. They are big, make lots of noise and are typically accompanied by warning lights and bells. Trains typically run on a schedule, making it even easier to know when to either step to the side or hop onboard.
We rarely get the same notification from an impending crisis in the workplace. More often, they appear, seemingly from out of thin air, and immediately consume more time than we have to give. Through frustrated, tired eyes we wonder where the crisis came from in the first place. Even though we vow never to let it happen again, deep down we know that it's only a matter of time before the next one hits our organization by surprise.

Such an outlook is what helped create an entire school of thought called crisis management. We have crisis action teams, emergency response checklists and we build entire plans describing how to effectively deal with the train that we never saw coming.
These impacts can be hard to absorb and typically leave "casualties" behind. Wouldn't it be better to prepare for specific contingencies and not rely on generic crisis response checklists? Wouldn't it be better for the organization if a leader knew about the train long before it arrived?

So, how does a leader get the schedule for inbound trains? In many cases, just getting out of the office and talking to the members of an organization can help a leader identify potential issues and areas of risk.
By the same token, if you are a member of an organization and know of an upcoming challenge, it is your responsibility to research and report it. Candor within an organization is critical to success; information must flow in all directions to maintain efficiency and effectiveness.

In addition to cultivating a culture of candor within an organization, a successful leader must be able to maintain objectivity in order to spot inbound trains. After all, allowing emotion to creep into a leader's perspective may provide short-term success, but will eventually create mid- and long-term unintended challenges. Rising above the issues at hand makes it far easier to hear the potential challenges and competing interests before they arrive.

Candor and objectivity alone will probably help catch 90 percent of the issues before they impact an organization. In order to achieve 100 percent, a leader must work hard to avoid complacency.
When things get quiet within an organization, it doesn't necessarily mean that everything is being handled successfully. In fact, the hair on the back of every leader's neck should start to stand up when things get quiet. After all, it probably means the leader isn't involved enough in the daily operation of the unit and that the first two elements, candor and objectivity, are being overlooked. This is the time to be even more aggressive about candor, information flow and objectivity.

Leaders who work hard to enable candor, remain objective and discourage complacency get a unique opportunity to steer their organizations in the best direction when challenges or crises loom.
As they identify the inbound trains, leaders can decide whether to maneuver clear or to hop onboard. You see, each inbound train is an opportunity. It is a chance to fight for new resources -- money and/or manpower -- and to unify their team toward a common objective. Leaders should anticipate inbound trains as a means to improve their organizations.

Now, crisis action teams and emergency response checklists certainly aren't bad things. After all, no matter how hard you try, there will always be something that catches your organization by surprise.
When you see a train coming down the tracks, don't just stand in front and brace for impact. Be ready in order to take full advantage of the opportunities they create. Not only will you be more efficient and effective, but you will ensure that your organization will continue in the best direction to achieve short-, mid- and long-term objectives.