My father had a temper. Growing up, I knew that his threshold for getting angry was pretty low. So, I dreaded his reaction when I had my first accident with the family car.
On an icy Sunday afternoon in December when I’d had my driver’s license for just a few months, I was returning home from visiting a friend across town. Making a right turn a couple blocks from home, I felt the rear of the car fishtail and swing the car broadside to the intersection creating a perfect target for the car behind me to T-bone the passenger side. Neither the other driver nor I were hurt and after exchanging information, we both drove away.
I walked into the house and found my father watching a football game on TV.
“I’m really mad. I just had my first accident.”
My father’s eyes didn’t leave the TV. “Are you OK?”
“The other driver?”
“He’s fine. We exchanged information and he drove away. Our car was a lot worse than his.”
“Where’s the car?”
“It’s in the driveway.”
“OK. We’ll go out and take a look at the next commercial.”
His eyes hadn’t left the TV.
Years later, I asked him about that day. He told me the reason my parents had kept the station wagon I was driving was that he and my mother guessed my brother and I were likely to get in an accident at some point and they wanted us to stay safe in a big tank of a car. He’d anticipated the situation and had prepared, both to minimize the downside of the accident and for how he’d react when it happened.
My father was employing strategies to increase his Composure – a quality leaders need to demonstrate grace under pressure. As someone with relatively low day-to-day Restraint, he knew he was subject to displaying extreme reactions. But experience had taught him that some advance planning and preparation – working through likely scenarios – would help ensure that he’d be prepared in this stressful situation. It also prepared his team – me – to learn something about responding with Composure and not to overreact when I or others run into a problem, a lesson I have carried into my own leadership and to many a challenging situation.
Leaders who anticipate changes or crises can take countermeasures to reduce or minimize the fall out:
- An ounce of prevention. My parents had realized that if something could go wrong, it likely would go wrong. With two young male drivers in the house, it was more likely a question of when a fender-bender would happen, not if it would happen. So, they worked backward from that bad outcome to ask what could be done to lessen the potential impact. Leaders will sometimes use pre-mortems as a way of avoiding or reducing the likelihood of problems. In a “post-mortem,” we examine the past to ask how the problem occurred. In a “pre-mortem,” we’re looking ahead to ask how we can prevent the problem from happening in the first place. By starting from the premise that things will go wrong, and then working backward to identify what could be done to prevent or divert that outcome, leaders can decrease the likelihood of a catastrophe.
- What if…? By anticipating the situation, my father could take the time to think clearly about how he’d like to respond should the occasion arise. Many leaders use Scenario Planning for a similar purpose. By thinking through potential situations a team or organization may face, the leader can work out possible responses before facing the situations for real and prepare more effectively to reduce or eliminate the risk.
- Context is everything. Keep the bigger picture in mind. For my father, it was making sure no one was hurt before considering the property damages. For leaders, it may be remembering the larger business issues and putting the current situation in an appropriate context before going into panic or anger mode. Modeling this behavior and coaching their teams to consider the bigger picture is the next step in creating an organization where people feel rewarded for stepping back and being strategic. Some leaders use the 10-10-10 Rule by asking themselves how they will feel about this situation in 10 days, 10 months, and 10 years. Large issues tend to shrink with time, and the path forward seems less overwhelming or infuriating.i
As my father taught me, big problems are inevitable. Leaders may not always be able to stop them (or stop themselves from losing their composure), but good leaders know how to put the tools and plans in place in advance so they can apply the brakes and manage the situation.