EXCLUSIVE: Leading through turbulent times


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M. Brian Reid, MS, MBA, MA, CPP, FBCI, CBCP, CFE and Jamie Sanderson-Reid, MS, CISSP, CPP, CRISC, MBCI, CCSP provide exclusive insight on how to lead a business during uncertain times.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, fasten your seat belts!” A good pilot knows when turbulence is expected on her route. The successful leader must not only be aware of upcoming turbulence in the business environment but also how to steer the organization during such times. Today we live in a world characterized by turbulence – that is conflict, confusion and chaotic changes which can happen at any time and without warning. Even organizations with the best laid out plans and operations face the uncertainty of the external environment including volatile market conditions, cyber threats, climate related risk and geo-political conflicts.

Diversity and inclusion

There are many good references that provide approaches to crisis management and communications including Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. For those leading security organizations, there is also a need to be laser-focused on strengthening the character traits that can improve success during turbulent times. Three essential traits are an appreciation for diversity and inclusion, strong situational awareness and rapid adaptability to change. Each of these traits are directly related to building a culture of trust and collaboration where each team member is valued and their knowledge is considered in the decision-making process as the organization itself adapts and seeks to thrive with ongoing change.

There is an old adage that says that three things never come back: the spent arrow, the spoken word and the lost opportunity. Lack of appreciation for diversity and inclusion ultimately leads to lost opportunities. During turbulent times it’s essential to consider all possible opportunities that can eventually lead to increased efficiency and effectiveness through process improvement and innovation. 

Leaders that don’t intentionally create an environment where all people can bring their ideas and concerns for consideration in a way that values their expertise and individuality will miss many opportunities or worse, end up blindsided. Many of us have been members of a team at some point where the leader created a culture where only those who shared the leader’s perspectives and mirrored their ideas would be heard and rewarded within the organization. In these situations many divergent ideas are never given due consideration. 

Individuals that think differently are ignored and the promotion of homogenous thinking or even sycophancy becomes the order of the day. While not every idea can be implemented, leaders who are navigating through times will benefit from equitable consideration of all ideas, as this will lead to increased creativity and retention of talent who go on to feel respected and valued. 

Communication is key

How many times have you observed talented individuals ostracized within an organization because their style of communication or interpersonal approach does not perfectly align with that of the leader? The lack of appreciation for their different approach to thinking and communicating often means the organization does not benefit from their talent because they are excluded from full participation in the team.

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Banquo asked the three witches if they could ‘look into the seeds of time’ to determine if he would have successful outcome. In Greek mythology, both gods and mortals alike would seek the counsel of the Oracle at Delphi to know what to expect as time moves on. In reality, it is actually impossible to predict the future, but we can however, prepare for it. Situational awareness is the foundational capability that supports future thinking and horizon scanning. Though this capability will not directly provide answers to what’s next, it can significantly improve decision-making. 

The three elements of situational awareness are perception of elements in the environment, comprehension of the situation and projection of future status according to the widely accepted theoretical framework developed by Dr. Mica Endsley in “Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems,” Human Factors.

For a team to function with a high level of situational awareness requires individual capability to understand and prioritize information that needs to be shared with the wider team and the processes to effectively share and consider each team member’s contributions. This capability is generally of high importance for leaders in times of turbulence as there is an increased frequency of decision-making and each decision has the potential for greater impact on the organization’s mission. 

Situational awareness

While all leaders could benefit from cultivating team based and shared situational awareness, it is particularly important for security leaders. The mission of the security professional is the protection of people, information and assets- this requires us to focus on threat operations and develop capacity to perceive threats and vulnerabilities as they evolve. When all the available information is not considered, this can lead to a loss of situational awareness. 

Consider the cases of the 2015 derailment of Amtrak passenger train 188 in Philadelphia and the 2002 collision of an Amtrak train and a Maryland Area Regional Commuter train in Baltimore. NTSB investigations in both cases determined that loss of situational awareness was a key factor leading to these tragic events.

In the 2002 collision the engineer was so deeply focused on regulating speed that she missed clear signals indicating she should stop. While not every accident or threat can be prevented, situational awareness can improve decision-making leading to better outcomes. This enables the most informed response in the present and supports future planning. 

Consider all the people in your team and the potential value of the knowledge and experience they possess that can improve the overall situational awareness of the team and decision-making outcomes for your organization. Leaders can leverage this capability by building an inclusive culture and supporting the processes that empower individuals to share ideas and concerns in a way that is respected and appropriately actioned.  

Embracing change

Change or Die? Is leadership really that existential? Alan Deutschman tackles this question in Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life. He finds that most often we do not change to our own detriment. Change management certainly is a core capability for leaders in times of turbulence. Transition and transformation of goals, processes and technologies is inevitable for any organization that wishes to thrive in turbulence. 

To be effective at change management requires the characteristic of adaptability to change. Do you not only accept but also, embrace change? Are you willing to challenge your own interpretation of facts and welcome alternative perspectives? Again, the importance of inclusion, building trust and welcoming diverging ideas to the conversation are an essential component for adaptability to change. Practicing creative problem-solving will build your adaptability to change.

To practice creative problem-solving begin with empathy, clarify assumptions, question standard practices and seek out the help of others. Creative problem-solving is a team sport. Increase collaboration to exponentially increase possible solutions for consideration.

In conclusion, leadership is about influence and guiding members of the organization to deliver on the shared mission. Security leaders can shape a culture of inclusiveness and collaboration through empowering individuals as fully included team members. The inclusive culture will provide a funnel of ideas and knowledge sharing which can help improve situational awareness and support adaptability to change. These leadership and organizational capabilities are table stakes for thriving in times of turbulence.  

This article was originally published in the November edition of Security Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.

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