Leadership in a minor crisis: Not every emergency requires urgency

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Is that emergency really a reason to panic? Probably not. Most of the time, emergencies are small enough that you can prepare for and mitigate them.

Image: iStock

We’re about 24 hours after a snow emergency that covered most of the southeastern U.S. as I write this. As is usually the case, forecasted snow was followed by panic buying at the grocery store, and shelves stripped bare of bread, milk, and for those looking to enjoy the emergency, beer and wine.

For someone who grew up in the northeast, the panic before a few inches of snow is always somewhat amusing, as is the inevitable flood of car accidents as drivers inexperienced with snow and ice discover that four-wheel drive is terrific for accelerating in slippery conditions, yet does little to bring a heavy vehicle to a stop.

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Our kids haven’t seen much snow, so they’re always extremely excited at the possibility and woke up delighted at the slushy dusting adorning the neighborhood. After digging out ill-fitting snow clothes, they joined neighborhood kids in making snowmen and fighting over the few sleds that someone scrounged up.

The “emergency” resulted in staying off the roads, enjoying each other’s company, doing some cooking and chores around the house, and a few walks around the snowbound neighborhood. A few minor tweaks to our routine and invoking our relatively well-practiced “remote learning” protocol for tomorrow, and the snow emergency was barely an inconvenience for our family.

The non-urgent emergency

When leaders think of emergencies, they often imagine dire circumstances requiring fast and urgent action. There are certainly emergencies of this type that must be mitigated and responded to; however, there are also non-urgent emergencies that are best handled with calm heads and some basic preparation. Like our “snow day,” here are some tips for dealing with non-urgent emergencies:

Think about what to stop doing: In some cases, like our snow emergency, stopping some actions is the best response. Vehicle accidents or being stuck in accident-related traffic were easy to avoid by simply staying off the roads. Too often, when planning emergency responses, we over-emphasize doing rather than taking the time to consider what we need to stop. For example, if you’re considering an emergency that might leave you short-handed, are there services or processes that you can temporarily suspend to free up resources?

Consider easy preemptive actions can you take: Should something happen that required an emergency car trip, for example, taking someone to the hospital, there were some easy preemptive tasks we took. Parking the car to drive straight out of the driveway and putting up the windshield wipers so they wouldn’t freeze took less than ten minutes and would save multiples of that time if we needed to leave in a hurry. Can you acquire and stage equipment at various offices to facilitate remote work? Can you create digital “bulletin boards” or automated communications tools in advance of an emergency? Your grandmother’s admonition to “prepare in leisure to use in haste” applies.

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Match your attitude to the emergency: Our snow day was an emergency outside of our direct control, and rather than panicking, we turned it into a fun family day, experimented with what we could cook from whatever was in the pantry, and planned for remote learning on the next school day. Particularly for unusual or uncertain emergencies, the leader’s attitude can significantly impact the performance and demeanor of the team.

Making do with available resources, adjusting as needed, and even having some lighthearted fun as you deal with the unusual can help you keep your sanity while setting the tone for your teams and colleagues.

Don’t lament what you don’t have: Had we been in a part of the country that routinely experiences snowstorms, our emergency would have been a non-issue and likely caused little more than a delay in the morning commute as plows, salt trucks and other resources cleared the way. Indeed, some of our neighbors half-jokingly lamented the fact that a few inches of snow essentially shut down the region.

However, it wouldn’t make much sense for regional authorities to spend millions on snowplows, salt trucks, employees and training for an event that happens a couple of times each year at most. Similarly, it’s probably not sensible to spend resources on expensive mitigations for a rare emergency, especially when inexpensive mitigations exist. Furthermore, embrace the fact that your organization has invested wisely and might have the equivalent of a snow day or two while better-equipped organizations have shiny (and extremely expensive) tools.

Just as our occasional snow days do present disruptions and additional risk, so to will your business face various emergencies. As leaders, it’s our jobs to know which are non-urgent and can be resolved through patience and a bit of inconvenience rather than faux-urgency or inappropriately expensive mitigations that are rarely deployed.



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