Important lessons about crisis management
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In my aviation career I have been in large airliner cockpits while pilots dealt with various emergencies and I was in awe of the confidence they displayed.
One day, I had my turn at the helm during an airborne emergency at flight school. As I flew us back the airport one afternoon, our Cessna 172 engine went down about 19km out.
The steel bird had a damaged valve and was running on partial power. My heart rate accelerated to match the irregular churn of the wounded engine, but my mind stayed quiet.
“I’ve got control,” my instructor told me as he took over flying duties. We declared an emergency and turned towards the nearest airport.
My mind raced back to all emergencies I had encountered as I sat in either an airliner cabin or cockpit jump seat. I remembered, the most frightening emergency I ever experienced with captain James Dewet as commander.
Captain Dewet and the first officer did a sterling job but the severity of the incident, how they stayed composed and safely brought the aircraft to a complete stop, gave me solace in knowing that an aircraft in distress can be brought safely to ground.
I began to wonder if this small four seater airplane engine would carry us to the ground, unhurt and – at the very least in my mind – unruffled.
These thoughts happened in seconds as I immediately had to work with my flight instructor by executing and monitoring the emergency checklist while he flew us. He later told me you “didn’t look afraid”.
“You had mental control of the situation,” he told me.
I had been watching him for cues and because he didn’t seem frightened; I felt safe but I was scared, and for good reason. We had a checklist to turn to and two people’s safety to look out for, there was no time for panic and wallowing in my fears.
I had confidence in my instructor’s experience, expertise and competence in managing a crisis which calmed me down.
I later learned that my instructor was actually scared too; he knew how serious the engine problem was, the trainer aircraft had only one engine.
However, he had dealt with engine failure before and managed to fake his confidence till we made it safely to ground.
To most people, “fake it till you make it” means having the confidence to fake competence until you’ve actually gained it.
That is overconfidence which is almost never useful, especially in an emergency.
Instead, confidence should equal ability. Pretending to know what you’re doing to fool your colleagues and employees into thinking you’ve got it under control won’t help you manage the problem. But if you do know what you’re doing, pretending you aren’t afraid can help see you and your subordinates through with a steady hand.
Being a leadership enthusiast, that day I observed a few crisis leadership lessons when debriefing with my instructor:
– When an emergency arises, be confidence personified. If you are petrified your subordinates should never see it. If they can see that you are fearful, your team’s confidence disappears and it becomes difficult to deal with the crisis effectively. Leaders should always be confident of their skills to manage a crisis, that confidence is built by developing competence in a “crisis simulator”.
– When in an emergency, it is helpful that you have a crystal clear mental picture of what to do next. My instructor had dealt with engine failure many times in the simulator, and once in a real time flight. Previous success in handling a crisis breeds confidence and confidence breeds positive results. Even successful visualization of what to do in crisis will lessen the impact.
– The least experienced member of your team counts, they can contribute immensely to whether you crash or land or whether your business survives or goes bust. In airline cockpits ,the captain is usually the most experienced, but when in an emergency he relies on the team work of the pilot monitoring which in 80% of airline aeroplane accidents he is not the pilot flying. The least experienced pilot will be monitoring the emergency checklists and other relevant factors to help the captain land safely. The captain also relies on the cabin crew to bring calmness in the cabin which is critical to overall safety. Use the skills of everyone, it makes a difference.
– Have a checklist and be very familiar with it. It can save both your life and business. The cockpit is notorious for the utilization of checklists, before every flight, pilots engage in a briefing where they go through various checklists that will enable decisive action to avert catastrophe in an emergency. Every second counts when an emergency occurs. The recent Clicks hair crisis would have been averted and not escalate in a manner it did if the company had a crisis simulator and their staff (pilots) had emergency checklists to rely upon. What makes planes crash also make companies crash, it is human error 80% of the time and if there is no competence and usable tools in crisis leadership to immediately the company will be severely affected.
After touch down with my instructor, he said to me “in a crisis what matters the most is your ability to make survivable mistakes”. I had missed one item on the checklist but it wasn’t going to have the C172 crash.
I realised that experience is the sum total of survivable mistakes. To this day that mistake will never occur if I’m faced with the same crisis. Leaders should allow competence to develop by allowing followers to make survivable mistakes before their businesses are faced with a major crisis.
In that way you don’t fake it till you make it but rather make it till you face it and handle it successfully.
* Joe Phalwane is an award winning entrepreneur, regular radio show guest, leadership coach, motivational speaker and aviation expert.