"Make a decision and put it in place ..."
Why they're a Crisis Leader:
John James is the reason that this interview project even exists.
After reading my first book, he suggested that there are people that would benefit from hearing more about what goes on in the mind of Crisis Leaders.
John was my first interview, and he blew my socks off with his stories about what he relied on to lead during a deadly disaster in his jurisdiction.
Besides his lifetime of selfless public service, John is a Crisis Leader because he makes decisions and takes action while others are stifled by a pursuit of perfection.
I'm inspired by John's attitude about leadership, and you will be too.
#1 "What is a Crisis Leader?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What is a Crisis Leader?"
You know, of course we know the formal term, but when I think of a crisis leader, I look to people who're maybe not as defined as a leader, or even recognized as a leader.
It's the ability to formulate a response, a decision, an action, during a time of crisis, whether it's a personal crisis at home, or whether it's a public crisis you're a part of.
So in my role and in my experience through life, the people I've seen that I would define as crisis leaders are those who at a moment's notice can be taken from a state of readiness and rest to full action and from that be able to take the situation at hand, formulate a plan, and put the plan in motion.
And I think the key to that is, and I give you credit, Mike, I think I read this in one of your books, is making a decision and put it in place. It may not be the complete answer.
It may not be the complete appropriate answer, but I think the key of a leader is one that says, okay, let's start this and we reevaluate as we go and we make those changes.
Another quality, you couldn't get caught up in the emotions of what's going on.
Obviously, if you're from there, your hometown such as one of my events, tornadoes in a small town, and a county like us.
When you've grown up here, everybody knows you, you know everybody, so there were names being given to me during the event of people who had been killed that I knew personally, knew the family, but at the same time, I had to look at that as a fatality, a casualty, and just another circumstance that was going on and had to still perform.
And so I think the good crisis leader would be those individuals who can take the events, bring people together, be that person that sort of can be the coach of the team and bring them up and get them motivated.
Get them set on the right path and put them in action. Put them in motion and then be able to adapt that, not be so stuck in your own ways that you can't go, hm, that's not working. Let's change it and go this direction.
So, to me a crisis leader is that person, that can move at a moment's notice, make decisions, formulate a plan, put them in place, but reevaluate and adjust as necessary to accomplish a goal.
#2 "What's an example when you relied on your own Crisis Leadership?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What's an example when you relied on your own Crisis Leadership?"
So thinking of an event that sort of, I could say, allowed me to demonstrate what I would anticipate as crisis leadership... Alabama was struck on April 27th, 2011, with a series of tornadoes that moved through our state and more focused to me, moved through our county in northwest Alabama, and struck a small town of Phil Campbell.
A small town, population probably 1250 people. About nine miles away from my home and being from this county, this area my entire life, most of those people, I know, know me, and they're a community that is protected by a one or two person law enforcement division and everything else, volunteers. Fire department, ambulance service.
Having been a career firefighter, prior to my move to emergency management, we worked closely with those people and I knew that my department would be called out to assist.
So even without being paid, when I heard the events unfolding and that the tornado had actually touched down in that community, immediately responded to the fire department, went into the community as a volunteer fire fighter with my department.
Began doing search and rescue operations, where we had done the things, that we unfortunately hope we ever read about, that it always happens to someone else.
I'm speaking of having to simply mark and step over or around, those that have lost their lives. Toting the injured out on whatever pieces of material from a house that's been blown away, that you can find to do that.
Hauling people from inside these neighborhoods that have been just totally devastated, in the back of pickups and on the back of four wheelers out to ambulances and then having to use tractors and other means to actually move through areas and pick up the bodies and be able to haul them out to be cared for. So started the day in doing those events, immediately as response and rescue operations. Moved into the nighttime, tornado struck in the afternoon.
And so I'm back in my role, if you will, I'm back in the game as a firefighter, and honestly, that's what I'm trained to do, that's what I knew to do and so we were doing that work as best as we can.
Things sort of come to a slowdown point, if you will, we felt like all of the immediate rescues had been completed. We knew there would probably be a lot of ongoing rescue and then unfortunately, some recovery operations that would have to transpire.
During the night at some point, I don't remember exactly when and how long, that the mayor and council, the mayor of the town of Phil Campbell, the fire chief, police chief, the sheriff, and some of the county elected officials came to me and quite literally, tapped me on the shoulder. And I turn around and there stands these individuals and they looked at me in what one could only imagine as a broken leader, who was devastated at what had appeared to have occurred in their communities and obviously needing some guidance in where to go next.
In what's our next steps?
And they literally tapped me on the shoulder, and their words were, you're the only person we know in this county that's ever experienced any catastrophic event of this nature.
And they were referring to my time that I responded to hurricanes Ivan, Katrina, and other events on the Gulf coast. And so through conversations, it was determined that they just needed a road map of how to move forward.
They felt like they had people that was alive, gathered up and moved to triage and moved some on to the hospital.
They knew there was other operations. They knew there were unaccounted for individuals, and unfortunately, dead that was probably still trapped in the rubble.
But then, how do they even move forward past that?
I give them credit that even that night, they already recognized the fact that very soon we will move from gathering everyone who's been injured or killed, but then we've got to rebuild our town. People are expecting things, and they knew that and they knew they had to reach out somewhere, to someone that could give them that guidance and that knowledge and maybe some experience and hindsight that they could use.
So I happily agreed to step into that role.
I met with them and laid out some game plans of what we need to accomplish, what things needed to be done. Even laid out some groundwork of how to approach the governor and the federal officials that I knew would be coming to bare assistance in that. And then immediately put together a structure that we knew, we thought would work.
And I had to be very poignant with them and say, for this to work, you've got to let me organize, you've got to let me put this together, and you've got to sort agree to adhere to what I put in place.
We can't be working over each other.
We're working with volunteers, people are gonna be coming from everywhere because it's the nature of humans to wanna assist.
And so they agreed to that, without any real discussion. It was just, you tell us what we need.
I took that a step further, and I think this maybe is one of those key points that I think that a crisis leader has to do is I took that a step further to these people who were the elected officials. The fire chief, the sheriff, the mayor, the police chief of the town, the chairman of the county commission. And I pointedly said to them, you do not, I'm asking you to not do anything in reference to this event without giving me knowledge of it occurring, prior to you doing it. And I explained to them that the reason for that was, is that there's things that would unfold over the next course of days, and weeks, and months, that the activities we do today could influence those decisions, such as their revenue reimbursement.
And so when I used that aspect of it, and I sort of, you don't stick your chest out as that person, but when you know you have the experience and you know you have the ability, don't be afraid to step up and take that stand with those people who we normally look to for that leadership, because sometimes the lowest among us are the most qualified to be in charge.
And we have to recognize that. I think that's another characteristic of a good leader in itself, whether that had to have been me, or if I had to look below me for someone else at the time.
So we did that, we organized, and so I think that was the first thing that I could relate in that event that was a strong point for a good leader, a crisis leader, is to be willing to step up to those individuals and say, this is the way it's got to occur for us to be successful, and if you want me to do that then this is what I need from you, and I got that.
The second aspect that I think was really key to this event being successful.
I had been trained in NIMS and ICS and all of the abbreviations, the courses, that we could think of that's out there. And working in a career service and in hurricanes we had a lot of career people and it was easy for people to adapt to that organizational structure and you could throw out terms such as liaison officer, food unit leader, branch director of a rescue branch, and another one for a recovery branch or whatever you needed and people understood that.
They understood, where they'd fit in. But on the first day following the storm, we had 750 volunteers sign in to assist. We were still doing secondary, second level search operations, looking for recovery, honestly.
And then other things started to occur.
So we started having overwhelming support of people who wanted to bring food to that community and they were bringing it all to one central point. We had people bringing in equipment to do debris clearance. Excuse me. Which I knew needed to be done, not just for the roads, but people's property.
But at the same time, it's one of those things, knowing we've got to manage this, because we've gotta capture that debris amount because of reimbursement issues and things like that.
So trying to pull that group of volunteers together and organize them in a way, where this 10 or 12 people work with this one person, who sort of had what their mission was, or their task, if you understand, in mind. And I could send them out to a predetermined area and they accomplished the work at that area, and they would come back and say, okay, we're finished here. Where do we go next?
And so I knew that was the challenge and so I found a few people that had a little background in various things.
Had one game warden, who had came and volunteered, he was still an active game warden. He was actually on leave to retire, he came and said, I'm here, what do you need? And you would think game warden, law enforcement, but what I knew, he had just returned from serving our country, I believe in Iraq. And there he served as, what they're titled, as a logistics officer. And so movement of people, equipment, and resources was nothing new to him.
So I very quickly looked at him and said, hey, can you take a map of this area, divide it up into some grids, and I'm gonna have some people sent to you, and put them in teams and give them a work assignment, and can you coordinate that for me? He said not a problem, and so he did that.
Another example is, as I've said earlier, every church in our community, every civic group, stores, restaurants, anyone who prepared food, was bringing food to deliver to the community. And they was bringing it to the one structure that halfway withstood the events of the tornado and they were bringing it to us, and that's where we were operating from and it was overwhelming our facility.
One, the number of people was continually coming in, everybody wanted to talk and tell you their story, and you felt honored and obligated to listen, because they had been through a horrific event. But at times then, it also, it sort of put chaos in our organization, and it lent to things getting out of control.
And so, there was a gentleman there who's wife was there and she's a very willing volunteer. A very capable person who will speak her peace, speak her mind. And I simply went to him and asked him, did he think she would mind if I gave her name to people who wanted to bring food and rather than put the food all in a central point, she identified some places around the town, that maybe we could get some pop up tents and she could have these churches and these groups bring their food to that location.
So people that were sifting through the debris of their homes, trying to salvage, could simply walk down to the intersection at the corner, and get something to eat and not have to leave their belongings that are scattered.
And he said yes, and she come to me and she said I am so thankful, thank you for finding me something to do. I never mentioned to that lady, that she was the food unit leader. I simply found a person that had a niche for something and I put her in place.
I could go on, and on about people. Another young man, that the town had a very unique sanitary system for their sewage, and it wasn't working properly. So we had to call in porta-toilets and they put them all in one spot.
And again, how beneficial was that?
Then law enforcement starts getting phone calls of people not using those, using other means.
And so I tasked this young man, who I had seen moving around town in a Bobcat, moving debris for people, but I noticed he had a set of forks that would lift down and lift items. And so I tasked him, I said, would you mind doing this for me? Take you a map, work with, it was actually his dad, work with your dad, identify some places, and let's put some of these around town, and then mark that map, contact the vendor, and let him know, these are where they're at, and start scheduling random emptying and cleaning of those units for the next month. He said, I'd love to do that. That was gone. He never really knew he was a facility or a service unit director.
The logistics guy, he knew it, but I never called him my logistics officer, you know, logistics chief. I just simply done that.
So I think the key to our success and the key to what I would say to a crisis leader in this events is one, know your community. Know the area you're in. Adapt once you've learned professionally, formally, whatever means of education you have in your profession. Find a way to apply, to fit, the people you're working with. One solution does not fix everything. So find a way to make it fit.
I never drew a command structure up on the wall. We never had a command structure.
We had phone number lists that everybody had. We did have a little list that a few people would know if somebody called in and said, they wanna know about this, rather than come to me I said, have them call Ms. Joyce. Have them go to Mike. Whoever the person was.
So we had our communications plan. We had an information process, that when information come in, if it was obviously about food it went to Ms. Joyce, but if it was something they couldn't understand or didn't know where to handle this, they brought it to me and asked me to assign where this went to.
And those thing happened naturally.
Simply because we used people, we put them doing things that we knew needed to be done and we have a little bit of guidance and we let the processes develop.
Not by trying to say, okay, what is our process? We've gotta follow NIMS and we've gotta fill all these boxes, but who's doing the job.
We had a PIO who voluntary showed up with his radio station in tote. Honestly, he had a command, a little mobile radio station and says, I will do your broadcasts, live broadcast every 20 minutes from here, any updates you want comes out.
People was taking him information and without even asking, he would bring that information and say, before I put something on the air, I want your initials on the bottom of the paper so I know you have approved anything I put out.
So if they were establishing a new food place, to get food they would write it on paper and take it to him. He was had a way to get me to approve that.
So again, information flow was a process.
The PIO established, that radio guy took his own process, and put together an information plan for our public and from there we was able to broadcast numbers to call, and things for assistance of that.
So I think that's some examples of how I took an event and made a crisis leader out of it.
#3 "What do you know now that you wish you knew then?"
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Thinking about what I know now that I wished I knew then.
To be quite honest, I probably knew it then, or I know I knew it, I'd had exposure to it, but I'm gonna say the planning process.
And I know that's a very broad term we use a lot in training and in this business it's the planning process, and we done a version of planning process during the tornado outbreak there in our town, but we didn't define it like we needed to.
We didn't probably document it as well as we should have and we didn't really lay out everybody's objectives and then their strategies and things that we now know, from watching other events unfold around our country, where we could have probably been a little more efficient.
Because the one thing that I had to sort of step back from this and I have gained from it is even though it was my hometown, my home county and the town next to me, even though it was my people, so to speak, being injured and killed and it was my people, the volunteers that were out there responding.
Even my daughter's sorority and the entire university athletic program under head coach Terry Bowden at the time, brought nearly 300 of their student athletes and sororities there.
So it was truly my people, but at the same time, we didn't leave anything there and I had to realize that even though that was going on, I felt like I've got to be there every moment to keep this thing moving.
And I spent the large portion of every moment there for several, several days. I would go home only to shower, only to clean up, and right back out.
And so what I knew that I didn't do that I know now is had I really invoked the planning process into a formalized, documented format, then I think I would have felt more comfortable.
Because I had the people that I felt comfortable in leaving control or sort of in charge, if you will, but sometimes just sort of giving them that road map of this is what I want to do and I'm confident in you, but here's something to lean back on.
So we met every afternoon.
Late in the afternoon we would meet as a group with sort of the key people involved in all these different things and we sort of just done a status update around the table of where we was, which would be our situational updates.
And from that we'd gather, here's where we're at, here's what we need to accomplish. The first two or three days, we went 24 hours a day, then we had to back off.
Once we realized we had recovered all of the individuals, and now we were truly in recovery phase, we went down to about, this was in April, we went down to about a 16 or 17 hour day. And we would work that, we didn't do 12 hour shifts.
We simply worked because the number of people that we had that we could put in leadership positions.
So we would work those extensive days, then we would leave for a few hours and come back. Even with the overnight, there was law enforcement issues to be dealt with, power restoration issues, sanitary issues, food unit issues.
So we didn't really put a plan together that said, here's the nighttime needs that I feel like sometimes we left, because I would go back in the next morning and it would be, hey, we had to do this during the night, or we done this during the night and would I would ask why, there really wasn't a true reason, other than somebody just wanted to do it that way.
And it required us, sometimes, to have to back up a little bit.
And that's not uncommon and I'm not saying that was wrong, except had we given a little more defined path and expectations laid out a little better, I think they would have stayed on target with what we needed. It didn't really set us behind very much at all, a little bit a time or two.
So I think the key thing that I would say to someone is use what we know works.
We know following NIMS and having a command structure, and having that span of control, we knew that works as I shared previously. We know the planning process works, sometimes as cumbersome and as bothersome as it is to go to meetings, and sometimes as repetitious as the things occur as the days unfold.
But when we moved from rescue to recovery, we knew we had to get debris.
We knew we had to get power restoration.
We knew we needed to determine a plan for our schools, because this community, the school was gone. It destroyed the school.
It destroyed the only doctor's office, the only pharmacy, and one of the two grocery stores were gone.
So we were immediately into, had to have medical services for these people because these people's homes were destroyed.
So we moved into that, but we really didn't lay out those as objectives with who's accomplishing it. What's going on and where do we expect to be in 12 hours to measure ourselves? We just said, we gotta get this done and somebody went with it, and we was constantly having to get updates.
So I would say to someone, use all the tools in your toolbox if they're needed, and understand that yes, a lot of times, and we do this in real world, a lot of times with the planning process, it's done verbally between two people talking or a group of people accomplishing, but when you get to a mission that's catastrophic or large enough that you're gonna be turning over things that you're doing, to other individuals and I think in my mind, that's the key.
If I could stay there from start to finish as I did when I was an officer in command of the fire, and I was there and I could stay from the time we rolled up first engine, until we rolled the last hose, then I was comfortable with not having to layout a planning process. I would meet with whoever was in charge of interior operations and other stuff, here's the game plan, let's go do it.
But when I know I can't stay there for the duration and there's different people gonna come in and play a part in this process, then I think the importance is to document it so that you stay on task and then the second piece goes along with just the historical means of documentation and how sometimes that can even transition into some financial recovery.
And so I would just say, what I've learned from that is use those processes that we know is there and implement those even in some rudimentary form. It could have been written on the whiteboard every day and erased tomorrow, took a picture with our phone now, that's the way to do it, you know.
Accomplish what we need to on the board. If we didn't do anything but write objectives on the board, here's what we wanna accomplish tomorrow when we come to work, and everybody can look at that board and know that that's there, and capture it, and then build from that the next day.
So I think that's the piece that I wished I have done more in depth, but I will say this, even though we didn't do it and I wished we'd have done it better, it did not cause us to fail.
We did the things, we just didn't capture it as we should have.
#4 "What advice would you give someone who wants to improve their own Crisis Leadership?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What advice would you give someone who wants to improve their own Crisis Leadership?"
When I think of ways to improve someone's leadership, if I was trying to mentor someone, the first thing is that, is if I was looking, it's finding someone to mentor you.
Find that individual that you can look at and determine that maybe this person, they understand this and they can relate to it from my point of view.
It's easy for a young firefighter, I'll use as an example, it was easy for a young firefighter to look to Chief Alan Brunacini, who's the known name of the fire service in this country, who left us with a legacy, left us with wisdom and training that's beyond anything that most of us could ever imagine.
And some of his leadership styles that set the standards.
But at the same time, when you look at his department size, and the things he was able to accomplish, it may not work in a rural jurisdiction with one station, 10 guys, three a day.
So find that mentor that has been successful, that has proven themselves, but that you can take their style and move it to the scale you need it to move to.
At the same token, nothing says you can't find someone that's at a one station department and employ their practices to one that's 20 stations large.
So find that person, find that mentor and then talk to them.
Plain language. Just sit down and have conversations with them. Hey, how did you handle this specific thing, which is actually the conversation that I've had with individuals about hey, you know people need to know, how did somebody accomplish this? And don't give me the answer in the textbooks and don't give me the New York City answer, give me the answer that fits for me in rural Alabama, or any other country you can plug into that.
And so that's the basis of what we're looking at today.
And then, just totally immerse yourself into the profession, into the education of the profession.
I think each of us needs to, we can't always just be the known leader. Sometimes people have that trait, I do think that leaders are born with a trait, with a characteristic, with ability, whatever you wanna say, that when given the opportunity, and when they choose to sort of pull that to their forefront, that it will take ownership and they will become known as a leader.
The expectation is there.
I'm very humbled in that, but I say that about myself, in that, I feel that I have immersed myself and I have trained over my 30-something years of training.
Both formal education, professional education, and I've found my mentors and those people. To the point that even small projects around my old town and community and civic things I get involved in, people look to me and say, hey, help us out with this. Get us in a path, get us set in the right direction.
A quick example of that is I was the dad that got chosen to be president of the Band Parents Association as my daughter entered her senior year of high school and so from that, we put together a large band competition and those of you that have children in the band and activities, understand that.
And so, it came time for that to be put together and organized for the year and yes I was president, and I could have very easily just reached over and asked somebody to head that up, but the school band director and people come to me and goes, hey, we want you to put this together for us. Because this was the second year they had done it, it was sort of a new thing. And so I laid that competition day out and those events leading up to that.
Again, using what I knew in command structures and span of control, and different activities being accomplished. And she's now been out of school about eight years and I served one year as that president and they recently had that same competition and it was neat to see that they had those individuals that each had those some job responsibilities that we laid out originally, because the plan worked.
And so, if you are that leader, don't be afraid to step up and show yourself.
Now don't be the arrogant person that thinks they always have to be in charge, but when somebody needs to be, demonstrate why you're there.
It'll make you better, it'll make you efficient and at the same time, it teaches a philosophy that we share with people, practice every day, the way you wanna play.
And so if I use my ability, if I use my skills in leadership, sometimes those don't come across as well in those gigs around home as they do in other places, in catastrophic events. They're not as accepted as well.
But if I use those as practice events, when I demonstrate those skills and I take on a project and be a leader, then when real world happens, and that major event comes, then I've practiced my skills and I've learned from those skills, and I've fine-tuned areas of improvement and it makes me a better leader.
And then find that mentor. Find that person as I did early in my career, that I could look to for guidance in there, and then immerse yourself in the education.
#5 "Who is a Crisis Leader that influenced your career?"
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When I think about when asked this question, and I referred often to the person that I can sort of point to as really setting me on the path of where I am in leadership, I immediately point to an individual that was by the name of Mr. Bruce Baughman.
Mr. Baughman was brought to Alabama by Governor Riley from FEMA, to be the director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency. Bruce had served in various roles in FEMA. He had put in an illustrious career, over, I think, 28 plus years. He had served in the Oklahoma City bombing, the first World Trade Center bombing, the Northridge earthquake. A lot of key level positions, Director of Operations.
A lot of response and recovery operations.
So from him, not only did emergency management in our state of Alabama just excel, but I learned an enormous amount of information from him and he was kind enough to give me books to read where he had actually highlighted parts and put post-it notes in and he would say, you need to read up on this topic.
And many of those have come to fruition.
Things that I can lean back, that he gave me that insight to.
And so I point to him, I refer to him often, as I said, as the person who not only brought emergency management to the forefront in Alabama and he was director during Ivan and Katrina, and from the success we had there, that I was fortunate to be a part of.
So I look to him and then I always publicly thank him for the opportunities he gave me to step up through emergency management.
So he is the person that I look to the most in this profession as guiding me along in my career.