Cultivating Command and Leadership

Are you a leader or a follower? Are you willing to step up and take command when the chips are down? Or are you content to let someone else lead? Can you bear the responsibility that comes with command?

I’m a heart-centered person who’s very compassionate, kind, gentle, and caring. That’s my dominant energy. As a result, in my life I usually take a back seat to others with more power, confidence, courage, and authority. Never bothered me; I was happy to let others take command … and the responsibility that usually went with it. I was the ship’s counselor, not the captain. But over the years I realized that walking around just caring about others wasn’t enough. Caring about an impoverished person doesn’t feed them. Caring about child abuse doesn’t save a single child. It’s only by taking action, by exerting our power and courage, that we can effect change. Likewise, if you’re someone who is strong in the areas of power, courage, and authority but you’re not heart-centered and caring, you could end up being a guy like Donald Trump or Dick Cheney; people willing to walk all over someone to get what they want.

Years ago I played an online role playing game called City of Heroes. My character was the group’s healer. I stood in the back and cast heals on people and would occasionally throw a punch, but I was pretty squishy so never ventured too far into the fray lest I be crushed by a single attack. This character I created was a pretty accurate representation of who I was as a person. Willing to let others fight and potentially be injured, but there to provide comfort, healing, and support. I was pretty comfortable in my role. One day, though, just for the heck of it, I created a scrapper character, a hand-to-hand combat fighter that couldn’t do anything from a distance. I had to run in and bear the brunt of the first wave of attack, and I was the one doling out the punishment. I felt really uncomfortable playing this violent character… at first. And then I started to feel more powerful and tough, and I started to really enjoy getting in there, getting my hands dirty, protecting the squishy healers in the back from being pummeled to death. As it turns out, there was a little fighter in me all along.

After I stopped playing City of Heroes I asked myself if in life I was a healer or a scrapper. I wanted to say healer, but after spending so much virtual time as a scrapper I realized it had brought something else out in me besides the caring, supportive, after-the-fact helper. I liked the feeling of power and responsibility that came with taking command of a group. And I also discovered I was pretty good at taking command. I wondered if in my real life I could channel the same energy as courageously as I did in a game where I couldn’t really be physically hurt.

I made a conscious decision to start working on my command and leadership skills. If you’re a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was Deanna Troi taking the Bridge Officer’s exam so I could command the ship in case of emergency. So over the years I started volunteering to lead. In my toastmaster club, Voice Links, I volunteered to be President, even though I didn’t yet feel qualified. I studied and learned what I needed to be a successful club president, and I was told by people who’d been in the club for many years that I did a fantastic job. But Voice Links is a pretty small club and its members are very easy-going and therefore easy to lead. It was the equivalent of leading a transport ship. I wanted to test myself further.

Last July I became the President of Powerhouse Pros, one of the largest toastmaster clubs in the southwest region. This was like taking command of the Enterprise, the flagship of the Federation. I felt tremendous anxiety about taking the position as I didn’t want to screw up the club with my lack of leadership ability. But as time went by I discovered again that I was comfortable with command. It became easier every week. There are a lot more challenges in this club than there are in Voice Links, but I’m loving it and have become quite comfortable with the job.

Last week, however, the universe threw me a test. Was I the scrapper or still the healer? The captain or the counselor? The leader or the follower?

Many of you know from my tweets that I’ve been taking a CERT class. That stands for Community Emergency Response Team. It’s a course you can take for free, sponsored by Homeland Security, that teaches you what to do when disaster strikes your town and first responders are overwhelmed. You’re basically trained on how to help yourself, your family, and your neighbors survive until the cavalry can reach you. You learn medical triage, fire suppression, search and rescue, disaster psychology (like how to help victims cope with loss and fear), and lots more. I took the class with my friend, Dana Richardson, who had taken the class before and took it again as a refresher. It was nice going through the class with him because he already knew so much and was a good source of information for me when I had questions between classes. Dana was pretty good at this stuff, and a couple of weeks ago he acted as our Incident Commander when we did a light simulation of how to do search and rescue in buildings. Everyone in the class relied on Dana since we all knew he’d taken the class before. This was to be a big mistake however, and something that taught me a big lesson.

Last week we had our final class. We had to do our big disaster simulation, which basically involved handling the aftermath of an “earthquake.” Several members of the fire department were on hand to help us with our simulation and make sure no one really got hurt, and our two instructors were on hand as well. The week prior we had signed up for our roles. Everyone nominated Dana to be our Incident Commander, the person on scene who is totally in charge and has to decide where everyone goes and what everyone does in the midst of chaos. Below him are the Medical, Search and Rescue, and Operations (fire) leaders. And each of those leaders has a team of people. I signed up to be on the search and rescue team… pretty low down on the totem pole. My job was going to be to search rooms for “victims” and bring them to medical for triage. I didn’t feel remotely qualified for a higher position. I was new and inexperienced. Those who had taken the class before we put into the leadership positions. All this planning turned out to be for nothing though as you will soon see.

The night had arrived for our final class. We were given our CERT bags which included a helmet, goggles, vest, flashlight, first aid kit, and so much more. Dana knew I was giddy with excitement and nervousness. I had heard the simulation was pretty intense. But I knew all I had to do was listen to the Search and Rescue leader and do what he said, so I figured I was in good shape. We were told to take a quick break to use the bathroom and then to meet outside to begin the simulation. When I got outside though, I didn’t see Dana. I looked around for him, but he just wasn’t there. The fire dept. lit a controlled fire outside the building, and our instructor, Page, came by and said, “Okay everyone listen up. There’s just been a terrible earthquake. People are trapped in the building and there are fires all over the place. Go.” Someone said, “Wait, where is Dana? He’s going to be our commander.” Another person said, “Hey, our Medical leader isn’t here either. We can’t begin without her.” Page yelled out, “People are now dying while you’re talking folks.”

I quickly realized what had happened. Page removed all our leaders and tucked them into the building as victims. She threw us into chaos as our command structure broke down instantly and we had no “leaders” to take charge. Someone said, “Who’s going to be in charge then? What are we going to do?” Before I knew what I was doing, I walked to the highest spot on the lawn in our group and raised my voice, “Listen up! Dana’s not here and we don’t have time to wait for him. You, over there, you’re going to be our Search and Rescue Leader. Stand over there. You, over there, you’re our Operations Leader, please stand right over here. Do I have a volunteer for Medical Leader?” A woman tentatively raised her hand. I said, “Great, please stand over there.” Everyone else, go stand behind the leader of your choice. They all moved. Someone yelled out, “Are you going to be our Incident Commander then?” I paused for a moment. I hadn’t even realized what I’d been doing. I just knew we had to get started and were wasting precious time so I started moving people into groups. So I said, “Uh yeah, I can do it until someone more qualified comes by to relieve me.” Inside I was thinking, “Shoot, I didn’t read up on what the Incident Commander does! I have no idea what to do here! How can I possibly be the commander?” Even though we had covered in class what an Incident Commander does, since I knew I was only going to be on the Search and Rescue team, I didn’t bother to brush up on it, so I had to recall information I’d learned weeks ago.

I turned to my Fire Suppression team because the fire was already going and I knew we had to get that out first before we could even enter into the building. I told them to engage the fire and put it out. Fire extinguishers were standing by so they went to handle that. Then I told my Search and Rescue leader to start assigning people in his group into teams. And I told my Medical leader to pick someone in her group for triage, transport, and morgue detail. I also told her where to set up her medical operations once we got inside and to create separate areas for triage, for victims whose injuries were delayed or minor, for victims whose injuries were life-threatening or immediate, and a morgue for victims who died on scene. By the time I was done, our fire crew had the fire out and we were ready to go into the building.

I knew our instructors had set many traps for us, and my most important goal and duty was to keep my CERT members alive. So we entered very cautiously, even though our urge was to rush in and start saving people. It took upwards of 5 to 10 minutes for the Search and Rescue teams to put their gear on (helmet, goggles, gloves, vest, flashlights), and for our Medical team to move chairs into circles for their various triage areas. The whole time our adrenaline was pumping. Even though we knew it was just a simulation, we were all on edge and in the moment. We didn’t want to screw up our final exam.

I realized that as the Incident Commander I had no one to tell me what to do. I had to make the final decision on everything. My operations team was running around the outside of the building putting out fires (under supervision of the real fire department) and turning off electricity and gas (simulated, not real). My medical team had no victims to treat so I turned my attention to Search and Rescue (S&R). Mark, my S&R leader, had two teams assembled. Before we sent them out, I reminded them not to go into any rooms where they smelled anything toxic or heard coughing coming from inside. The search teams went out and started searching rooms. I had to plant myself in a position so my S&R and Medical leaders could both see me. I can’t tell you how hard it was not to start running off to search rooms but to trust that our crews could manage the job.

One of our search teams didn’t come back to report in. Both Mark and I had to resist the urge to run down the hall to find out what happened to them. I had to grab a runner from Medical to gear up and go check. We told him to go down the hall, turn left and let us know if he could see the search and rescue team down the hall. But for some reason, he opened a door and went in by himself to look for the team. He was pronounced dead by our instructors. You never go in a room or building without a buddy. While we came to grips with our loss, I had to get another person from Medical into their search and rescue gear.

One lone team member came back from the original lost team to report that they had gone into a room where they smelled ammonia and heard coughing and she’d lost contact with her partner. Dead. We were all upset. After the warning I had just given them, they went and entered a toxic room. We’d lost another rescue worker. I felt like a failure and so did Mark and the lady who’d lost her partner. Two down and we hadn’t even found a victim yet! I was frustrated but we had to keep going. I had to grab more people from Medical to replace the lost search and rescue workers, leaving Medical with only two people to manage what should have been a 4 person team.

Meanwhile, our instructors turned off the lights in the hallway and now we were working in pitch black. I heard Page say, “I hope you all brought your flashlights…” in a sing-songing I-know-you-didn’t-bring-your-flashlights kind of way. Some of us did have our flashlights, thank goodness. Pretty soon one of our S&R teams found a victim. Dana. As they brought him in to Medical with “minor injuries” I shot him a look that basically said, “You could have warned me…” He just grinned evilly and went inside to be treated.

Bodies were piling up in the morgue: 3 dead, 1 injured. We had to find 2 more in the building somewhere. Our S&R teams were moving a lot more cautiously and slowly as they had already seen 2 of their own “die.” We found the last two victims and Medical took care of them. My Operations crew reported the building was now free of fires and electrical and gas hazards. The building was as secure as it could be, our search and rescue efforts were done, and Medical had all the injured (and dead) under control. The simulation was ended. It was way more intense than I expected it would be.

Our instructors then went over everything we did right and wrong. I was compelled to find the S&R member who walked into the toxic room and ask her, “Why did you go in there after I had just warned you not to? I’m curious.” She said, “I know, I know. But I heard people alive in there, coughing, and I figured I could just run in and get them and be out really quick.” In an intense, emotional, situation you don’t always think with your head but with your heart. That can get you killed in a disaster though.

There were accolades all around. When Page got to me she said, “How did Erin end up as the Incident Commander? Anyone know?” Someone said, “Because she stepped up when no one else would.” Page said, “That’s right! The Commander isn’t the person who is most qualified. It’s the person willing to take charge when no one else will. The person willing to take responsibility. How long do you think you would have been standing there, while people in the building were dying, if she hadn’t stepped up when she did? It took her only 10 seconds to assume command. All of you were just as qualified as she was, but none of the rest of you stepped up to the plate. Congratulations Erin on being a leader.”

I was proud of myself for taking command of the situation. I wouldn’t have done that a couple of years ago. I would have gladly waited for someone else to do it – not my problem, someone else can have that responsibility! But after consciously working on my leadership and command skills it was nice to see the Universe giving me a chance to exercise them. I was surprised no one else stepped up to take command though. Dana told me he’d read that in a disaster situation, 10% of the population is just going to break down, totally incapable of coping, 80% will be willing to be led, and 10% will step up into leadership positions.

My CERT disaster simulation showed me a side of myself I wasn’t sure was there. In the past, I wouldn’t have taken a leadership role because I couldn’t handle the responsibility of being wrong or making a mistake. Today I feel differently. I accept that as a leader I will make mistakes, but I’ll learn from them. I’m not afraid to fail anymore.

When was the last time you assumed a leadership position or took command of an urgent situation? How did you feel taking command? Are you comfortable with the mantle of leadership or are you content to let others make decisions that will affect your life?  Try cultivating command and leadership in your own life.  See what you’re made of.  See what you can get done.

Side note: CERT class is awesome – and FREE! It will help you prepare for disaster and learn how to do basic first aid and triage life-threatening injuries. I highly recommend it. You can find a course near you here.

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