During my first deployment to Afghanistan back in 2004, my battalion was on what’s called a site survey in Southern Afghanistan to meet with the other group that we were replacing.
I was in the operations center where I’d soon be the director. It was late at night and most of the guys were already at their fire-bases or in bed. I was sitting up with the outgoing director when an urgent report came in of impending enemy contact.
I was watching the other guys in the ops center and they didn’t just rush to the ball. They didn’t move right away. They were listening intently. They were writing furiously. They were talking among themselves.
The outgoing director leaned over to me and said, “One of the things I’ve learned in Afghanistan is the first report is always wrong.”
At first, that sounded odd to me, because clearly, these guys were out in the bush, so they had unmatched perspective on local reality, much more so than we did in this sterile command center.
But as the situation continued to unfold, the guys on the ground got more clarity and other sources of intel started to pile on. That’s when I started to see what he meant. Now people around me were starting to move and take action in the appropriate way.
It was a big lesson for me as a leader to see that in high-stakes, no-fail situations, the initial reports that come in are often wrong, inaccurate, or at least not fully baked. And that’s just human nature. If we are exposed to a high-stress crisis situation, we likely won’t get all the facts right. We’re going to report what we see and the person next to us will report it differently.
As leaders, we need the mindset that the first report is always wrong, and we need to be measured in how we respond to that first report because when you have a situation on your hands, trying to get ground truth is a difficult thing.
One of our biggest leadership issues today is creating a zero-defect environment, an environment where if you get it wrong, heads are going to roll. This causes leaders to overreact, over-speculate, and over-respond to the initial feedback they’re getting from the ground. This overreaction is fueled by fear, scarcity, and honor. It’s fueled by those primal factors that exist below the waterline that push us every single day.
How we respond in the initial moments of a crisis and what we do with it is critical. When a big event happens, you need to have the discipline to say to yourself that the first report is always wrong. This will give you the mental operating space to sort out what you need to do next. Everyone around you is going to panic. They’re going to start barking and chirping in your ear. Everyone below you is going to start feeding you unfiltered reports. If you don’t immediately adjust your mindset, you’re going to get sucked right into the vortex of the chaos.
Part of your mental clarity will come from stepping to the side and doing three lower-body breaths. Expand your belly on the inhale and drop on the exhale. Do this three times and it will help bring you down to a parasympathetic state. You can’t afford to be in a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ state with elevated cortisol when the stakes are high. You have to be responsive, but as a leader, you have to be clear. So step away and breathe, just a couple of quick breaths, then step back in.
Once you’re back in the game, it’s important to ask thoughtful, open-ended questions about what’s going on. People communicate best through a story, so allow people to tell you what’s happening in the narrative. That will bring everyone’s emotional temperature down and the picture of what happened will start to populate from multiple perspectives.
Your job as a leader is to speak last. In a crisis situation, leaders should ask thoughtful, open-ended questions and ascertain the clearest picture they can of what’s going on, and then speak. Once you’ve heard all the different perspectives, then speak to what the next steps are.
If we start with this notion that the first report is wrong, then step away and breath, ask thoughtful, questions, and speak last, we’re going to get the best perspective on what’s going on, which makes you the most relevant person in the room.
When we overreact without all the facts, we hurt relationships. By having a little bit of discipline over ourselves, adjusting our mindset, and leading ourselves through the moment, we can get a better perspective and be more relevant to the problem. We can keep those relationships intact with the people that we care about the most—our family, our friends, our associates, our employees, our bosses, our customers.
These are the people who are working so hard not to fail us. We owe them a quality response in a crisis.
This is what we do in Rooftop Leadership. This is how we think about problem sets and this is how we approach them.
Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com