In the late 1990s, I was a Captain stationed at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. The organization I worked for was an extremely technical place, full of engineers and PhDs. It certainly was an assignment where I wasn’t feeling completely confident as I wrestled with questions of science and math armed only with a Political Science degree.
My boss during this time was one of the toughest and most demanding officers I’ve ever met, Colonel C.J. Bohn. He was the type of officer that commanded respect when he entered a room. I had watched Colonel Bohn’s peers defer to him in meetings. I had also seen Colonel Bohn directly deal with substandard performance in subordinates. This was always done in a very frank manner that left no doubt in the junior officers’ minds that they had not met Colonel Bohn’s high standards.
Additionally, Colonel Bohn was an incredibly accomplished officer with an impeccable record. He was old school. A naturally tough guy and an unrepentant cold warrior, he had a resume and persona that impressed all, and intimidated some, of his officers. As for me, I had a deep respect for Colonel Bohn and I wanted to do a good job for him. This was one guy that I didn’t want to disappoint.
One Monday afternoon, Colonel Bohn assigned me with developing a briefing for our commander. After all these years, I can’t even remember the subject of that briefing and I suppose that is immaterial anyhow. What I do remember is that I had less than 24 hours to build the briefing and I worked on it most of the day with an eye toward 0800 the next morning when I would brief the Commander.
On Tuesday morning I was in early. By 0730, I had just finished putting the final touches on a briefing that I was to present to the Commander, a man who I hadn’t met, but was a rising star soon to promote to General. Adding to the stress of the moment was the fact that I was still fairly new to the organization and I was convinced that the person who knew the least about the briefing I was about to present was probably me.
At 0750, Col Bohn and I began the walk to the Commander’s office. As we walked down the hallway, I was rehearsing in my mind the key points that had to be conveyed in the briefing. The hallway led us through open spaces full of cubicles on either side. Suddenly, about 15 feet in front of us, a Major burst out of the cubicle farm. He had a bundle of papers and folders tucked under his left arm, loose sheets full of data haphazardly tucked in over-stuffed binders.
The Major barely noticed us. Instead he went running down the hall in the opposite direction that we were heading. The Major was obviously late to something. His panic was clear as he broke into a jog with his neck-tie flapping over his left shoulder.
Instinctively, I checked my watch. We had about 4 minutes to get the Commander’s office to deliver my brief. I naturally increased my pace, inspired by the Major’s hallway sprint.
I felt a hand grab my shoulder. Colonel Bohn stopped walking and asked me, “Captain Cheetham what did you just see?”
“A Major who must be late to a meeting,” I replied.
“Hold on a second. Tell me what you just saw. Describe it to me,” Colonel Bohn said directly. He wasn’t walking. We weren’t going anywhere until he got a better answer. This was one of the things that I’d experienced with Colonel Bohn before. He wanted his officers to think and discuss. He wasn’t the type of leader who would accept a quick answer.
So I described it in detail.
“I saw a Major who looked like he was in a bit of a panic. He was carrying way too many papers and was disorganized. He was sweaty, over-weight and his tie was flapping over his shoulder. He was running down the hall, so he must be late to a meeting or something like that.”
Colonel Bohn pressed me for more, “What kind of an officer did you see?”
“Well, I don’t know him but if I had to evaluate him on what I just saw, I’d say he’s probably not a very good officer.”
Colonel Bohn looked at me intently and said, “Captain Cheetham, listen to me – NEVER run in the hallway. It only makes the troops nervous.”
Never run in the hallway; it only makes the troops nervous.
To be honest with you, I don’t remember much after that. I suppose the briefing went well with the Commander, otherwise I’d probably be writing about how to prepare better briefings. The real lesson for me happened in the hallway when my mentor took the time to teach an invaluable lesson.
When everything around you is falling apart, when you are running short of time and resources; when the task is gigantic and seems impossible to achieve – that is when the leader has to resist the temptation to run in the hallway.
A leader keeps his head clear and his nerves calm no matter the situation. You owe that to your subordinates. They don’t want to see you running, sweaty, down a hallway when the times get tough.
Do your organization, your subordinates, and yourself a favor: when you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed by a situation, keep it to yourself. At those times, rather than applying physical effort, rationally and calmly lead your team. They didn’t sign up for managing your crisis for you. That is your job to manage crisis. It is at those moments a leader makes his worth to the organization known.
A genuine leader in times of crisis needs to be more calm than normal. That is the time for rational thought. It is also the time for an almost irrational confidence as you reassure your team “we can fix this; we can do this.”
Of course, it may also mean that you as a leader are going to have to work all night long. If you do stay up all night, make sure you take a shower and shave in the morning and then show up with the same attitude you have when things are going great and the sailing is smooth. Your subordinates don’t need to know your worries and concerns – they need you to lead.
In the end if crisis can’t be averted and you end up falling short; if you end up getting chewed out by your boss that is okay too. Leaders signed up for leadership not automatic success. Through good times, bad times, easy times and tough times – your job is to lead.
Panic isn’t part of the leader portfolio.