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Resilient Leadership in Incident Management

Learning Resilient Leadership: Putting leaders ‘in the box’

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Resilient Leadership has become one of the top searched business queries on YouTube (the world’s second largest search engine).

Recently I was consulting a large business on Incident Management and understanding resilient leadership. We worked on their overall framework for managing incidents, and then produced a beautiful array of nested documents to show how ready the company was to manage incidents. But then came the interesting part; the validation.

What I found was that the company was quite concerned about the exercise and scenario methodology.

In fact, we spent a number of meetings going into specific detail regarding the scenario that was to be tested, the key leader (and CMT lead), who we were conducting the work with, wanted to be fully briefed on the scenario and to be part of the staff administrating the exercise.

Having queried this type of approach with other consultants, it seems that this is not an uncommon occurrence.

So, what’s the problem here? 

Applying the most basic military or sporting mindset to this story reminds me of the adage ‘train as you wish to fight’. The issue in the anecdote above is not that the leader wanted to ensure the exercise met the required goals or milestones to satisfy internal, higher or external entities, but more the absence of actual leadership due to a fear of failure.

To internally monologue this type of leader;

Of course I would like to be involved in this scenario, but deep down I don’t want to look like I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t want to worry my team about my capacity to perform under pressure. I’ll find a solid excuse such as oversight of the exercisers or the need to accurately assess the response teams. In fact, I’ll most likely convince myself so much that I wouldn’t even have considered myself in the first place.

The term ‘in the box’ is a phrase used to describe people being exercised under test conditions. If you are ‘in the box’ you are being tested.

So, should a leader go ‘in the box’ with their team? Even in situations where they may have to pass supervisory or exercising duties to others (maybe even a junior). Should they step into the box when they know their deficiencies are likely to be seen? Should they step into the box knowing they may fail?

I was a commander of a Special Forces Task Unit in the Irish Defence Forces. This unit has an extremely rigorous selection process with less than 1% membership of the entire Defence Forces.

During my time as a leader within this organisation, I failed multiple times. I failed in front of my teams. Sometimes, I felt like I had made a fool of myself.

On one occasion during a physical competition on an obstacle course, I couldn’t scale a wall. Everyone else in my sub-unit could without any support. My technique and strength let me down and I was so embarrassed that I eventually had to get assistance to scale it. How could I ever ask of them what I could not do myself?

It hurt tremendously, and there was nothing I could do to change that moment. But I could and would do two things;

1) I found a weakness and therefore could fix it. I would train and train to ensure I could scale the wall. I trained during the weekends, springing up my house perimeter wall, over and over.

2) Most importantly, I didn’t hide from the fact that I was below standard and didn’t hide from future tests of my capability.

Standards are standards, and any test is exactly that, a test against a standard (even if only self-assessed). If I don’t test myself with my team:

  • Then I won’t know where I’m weak.
  • I might dangerously presume that I’m at the standard.
  • How would I ever know how I will go as a leader when ‘it’ happens for real?
  • How will we work under pressure if ‘for real’ is our first time?
  • How will they have confidence in me as having done the same as them, having shown my weaknesses, and then shown the leadership to remediate my weaknesses?
  • Then how would it be fair of me to appraise my team on their performance?

In answer to the question should a leader go ‘in the box’? – the answer (albeit without individual context) should be YES by default.

In my experience, the best leaders don’t just go ‘in the box’, they crave the opportunity to get in the box with their team, to give it a crack, to fail together (if they have to) and then learn and repeat the test.

The best leaders in my experience dislike sitting outside the box while their team is in it. They make the time to get into the box. They cancel other plans to show how important it is.

Everyone squirms at the thought of assessment. No-one likes to be caught off-guard in front of their team.

But in my experience, while the short-term effect of mucking up during a blind exercise will feel like a complete failure of your leadership, the long-term personal leadership and group dynamic gains far outweigh the embarrassment and incompetence.

If you rate your team then you will know they will admire your honesty of effort, over your ability to nail a debrief from the sidelines. Remember, this is training, where the entire idea is to learn from it, and your mistakes are always the best learned lessons.

So, as a leader:

  • Step into the box. It may sting a little, but you and your team will be stronger for it.
  • Step into the box with facilitators who understand this concept, who have been in the box and who appreciate the challenge.
  • Do it with those you trust, both to challenge you (because you will then learn) and who will protect you (with their experienced ability to read live exercise direction).

Because a real incident or crisis is not the time to begin your learning – it’s the time to do it and do it well.

The Resilience Digest