Thousand Oaks, California
Battalion Chief; Los Angeles Fire Department
“Maintain consistent tone and tempo …”
Why they're a Crisis Leader:
Before I met John Nowell, I heard about John Nowell. His reputation as a commanding, informative, and engaging leader preceded him.
And true to form, I completely understood and agreed once I had the opportunity to meet and work with him.
John’s diverse fire-service career enables him to distill many complex topics into those that are simple and understandable. As a teacher, John is in a league all his own.
As a crisis leader, his presence provides comfort. So much so that his crews memorialized that sentiment in a plaque presented to John upon his retirement:
Your assignment, your spot, the place where you chose to work.
We had you on all three platoons, all three express now their gratitude …
You led by doing, teaching, guiding; Exemplary all the while.
Ever approachable, quick to laugh, first in offering yourself to any task or anyone in need.
We wish you God’s abundant blessing!
And know that never ought be forgotten, the comfort felt by those in the fight upon hearing John Nowell say:
“Battalion 12’s on scene …”
The relief his crews felt when he was in command is understandable.
From his quote about ‘tone and tempo’ to his answers to the below questions, you’ll see that his consistent and authentic crisis leadership is why I wanted to share his story.
#1 "What is a Crisis Leader?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What is a Crisis Leader?"
So we're gonna talk about what I believe to be the qualities of a crisis leader and I would tell you that from experience on the Los Angeles City Fire Department, invariably some of our best crisis leaders were those people who obviously provided those levels of leadership and experience that when things were at their worst invariably they were rising to the occasion and had the ability to lead a group of individuals into some very bad situations and more often then not the better leaders, crisis leaders, would have a positive outcome as a result of that.
How did they get there and how did they develop that?
I would suggest to you that as you look around your department or your organization, invariably you are looking for people who will almost always have an incredible level of experience that got them to that point that they could provide that level of leadership when you came into the crisis mode.
I would also suggest that being a good crisis leader would be indicated by your ability to be a good everyday, non-crisis leader and invariably it's those people who have the experience and the knowledge and have made the time and the effort in not only training and preparing themselves but making a dedicated effort at training the people that work with and for them over the years to also be able to perform at a very high level when the crisis do occur because there are probably two different types of crisis leaders, those who are successful at mitigating incidence and those who in and of themselves occasionally have the ability to create or worsen a crisis. And those can almost always be spotted by their ability to lead on a day to day non-crisis mode.
So I would suggest to you that historically, especially on the Los Angeles City Fire Department those people who have the experience and quite often as I went through my career I would try and identify those people who literally intimidated me and ask myself why do they intimidate me and invariably it was because of their experience over the years, their having been to a multitude of incidents, their experiencing in managing people on a day to day basis, and their commitment and their efforts to not only make themselves better but also the people around them, their ability to recognize that being successful and managing a crisis did not fall on the one single person in charge of that particular crisis but was gonna fall upon everyone that was involved in that same incident and therefore they are always gonna make sure that the people that are working with and for them are trained to the highest ability they can be in order to be successful in every aspect of that particular crisis.
We also know that certainly in the fire service a great deal of our ability to be successful is our ability to recover.
It is probably more rare than common that we go to an incident with some preconceived notion of the outcome only to find that the fire and or mother nature had a different idea for us so we are constantly having to regroup, recover, and adjust our abilities and a good crisis leader has the ability to recognize that and has the ability to work with and convince their people that are working there that it is the right thing to do to go to an alternate method.
The other thing we notice in our better leaders of course is that their ability to lead in an non-crisis phase which is 99% of a career of course, doesn't change when the bell goes off and you go out the door and you're challenged with a massive incident that what I affectionately like to call their tone and tempo changes very little when they're going from the non-emergency day to day management to all of the sudden being faced with a very large what is perceived to be a crisis by certainly Mr. and Mrs. Smith who made the original 911 call so that as you go to an incident and you're working with your people they know and recognize the calming effect that tone and tempo by an experienced leader can provide in order to successful mitigate an incident and they appreciate that.
You can imagine as you're going out the door of a fire station and all of the sudden the messages start coming over the radio that you have a significant working incident that the adrenaline rush is incredible and you will have all levels of that adrenaline rush and all levels of reaction to that rush based on the experience and the level of training that everyone responding has.
So they're always looking for the leaders amongst us who are gonna be able to maintain that appropriate level of tone and tempo to bring some calmness, if that's even possible, in these situations.
Quite often we find that the more successful people in that process are the ones who recognize the capabilities of everyone that's working with and for them, they have made a dedicated effort to train them, they have the experience that they have been there and done that and every position that's gonna be operating at the incident, and therefore they are not getting on the radio and asking for arbitrary, unnecessary information on a regular basis because having been there and done that they know what everyone of those individuals is up against at the moment and they recognize that it takes time in order for them to be successful in everyone of their specific operations that you assign.
So the more successful crisis managers recognize that and rather than asking questions constantly throughout, which is by the way probably a prime indicator of their lack of experience, because of their experience there is a tone and a tempo on the radio that is calming and allows them the opportunity to be successful and more often then not you are providing them information from your outside clear air view on whether or not it is obvious they are being successful in their efforts.
And if you've been there and done that in every one of those positions you know what they're going through and you know that as they're crawling through a burning building or they're running a chainsaw or chopping with their ax on the roof, they don't have time and don't need to be bothered with asking mundane questions to the incident commander.
Our better crisis managers recognize that and provide them the opportunity to be successful and the information they need in order to determine whether or not they're being successful as the clock continues to tick.
Always reminded of folks like Sully Sullenberger and the infamous Miracle on the Hudson where they were faced with literally one minute and I believe about 39 seconds, to make some decisions in order to ditch their plane in the Hudson River and I can always recall him afterwards reminding us all that his success was based on his 40 years of training and experience and not a day went by that he didn't make an investment in his training.
Never conceiving that 40 years later he would make the ultimate withdrawal from that training account and in a minute and 39 seconds he did not rise to the occasion, he truly fell to the level of his training which fortunately was exceptional amount of training and ultimately ended up in the most successful ditching of an aircraft in the history of aviation.
#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?"
When it comes to incidents that I have been involved with where crisis leadership has been an issue, certainly I think back over my 35 years with the fire department.
And as I moved up into the supervisory positions, I recognized that I was incredibly fortunate to go to a multitude of different types and kinds of incidents that were literally across the board and had the opportunity to do those repetitively.
So I mean it's everything from a single family dwelling fire to a high-rise fire, from grass and brush fires, to major earthquakes, to major civil disturbances and not only just within our area but up and down the entire state of California.
So I will tell you that once again in may efforts to be the best that I could, in managing those incidents and managing those people, it was always foremost in my mind that I'm not going to ask them to do anything or go somewhere that I hadn't done or been myself.
And also once again had a successful outcome with having been there or done that, which I think is key.
Is that through your activity levels that you develop that, once again what I like to call that tone and tempo that people appreciate, that as things are potentially getting what we would describe as worse and the anxiety levels are going up, that I would actually make a conscious effort to make sure that my tone and tempo were remaining consistent and had some level of calming as a part of that.
And of course the big part of leadership is truly being out front and leading them through those capabilities.
So once again having the opportunity to go to a multitude of incidents in virtually every firefighting position gave me the opportunity to recognize what each one those individuals within the organization were charged with.
So that crisis leadership has truly an affair of everyone involved.
And everyone needs to be successful in order for the leadership to be successful also.
#3 "What do you know now that you wish you knew then?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What do you know now that you wish you knew then?"
So, what do I wish I knew then, that I know now? Everything I just talked about.
Certainly when you're young in your career, I was incredibly fortunate to come into the fire service at a minimum age requirement and as you can imagine, back then, if you're absolutely unexperienced, you don't know exactly what to expect and all of a sudden you're thrown into this environment of incredible professionals.
What I wish I knew then, that I know now is that I probably equally as accidentally or consciously, worked my way up through every position that was available and had the opportunity to work at many of the most, the busiest, and most successful areas and stations through out the city of Las Angeles.
So, probably unbeknownst to me, I was receiving the training and education of how best to do each one of the positions that I held and I got an incredible amount of recognition, prime decision making experience, on how each one of those positions should react and operate in a multitude of different incident types.
So, of course if I'd a known 45 years ago, what I know now, I would've made a even better and more conscious effort to identify those areas where I'm gonna get the experience and those people who I'm gonna get a positive experience from.
And I would suggest to you, that almost immediately within the beginning of your career, those folks will be identified and they're more often than not, those who are intimidated by other folks on a job.
And all you need to do is make sure that their intimidating for the fact that they are incredibly successful and experienced in what they do, not for any negative reasons.
And if you search out and go work for those folks who have that intimidation and that experience going, well then your organization, invariably you can't help to become better and better prepared as you go throughout your career and you'll be far more successful in your endeavors.
#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?"
My best advice to someone who is interested in improving their crisis leadership is that you have to make a conscious decision to put yourself in those positions that are going to force you to become the best that you can be in your position.
I will tell you, and I probably didn't recognize it, in fact I know I didn't, earlier in my career, because you don't think of those things, but what I found myself doing was identifying the busier places to work so that I could go to more, bigger, more intense incidents and work invariably with those folks on our department who were leaders in each of those areas because they had a tremendous amount of experience, and especially positive experience in going to those multitude of incidents.
So you need to make a conscious decision to go work where you're going to be busy and you're going to be immersed in the process.
What I ultimately learned in my training positions in the department was that there is a process called recognition-primed decision making and I finally realized that's exactly what I had been involved with throughout my career.
I had gone to a multitude of incidents, many times over, and had a multitude of different experiences so I was able to develop that slideshow of having been to all those different incidents and recognizing what the outcome should be.
And I think it's also important that when you go to those locations and you immerse yourself in all those different types of experiences that you're doing it with those experienced leaders who have had a successful outcome, not those ones who maybe have a less than successful outcome who could almost be described as crisis creators.
So, I think it's important that you immerse yourself. And quite often, what I found myself recognizing is I was looking for those places to work and the people to work with who had intimidated me, who have reputations on the department for being positively aggressive, with positive outcome as a result of a multitude of incident experiences.
And those are the ones that I tried to gravitate towards.
I also recognize that it wasn't just the leaders in each of those locations that needed to provide me those experience, but those leaders reside throughout the organization at every level right down to, and especially including, the basic fire fighter level and working with those fire fighters who have a tremendous amount of experience and what we affectionately describe as the locker room leaders of an organization who have that experience and that intelligence and that calming effect that when things are at their worst, they have been there, they have successfully done that, and they will safely get you through that experience so that you can develop that into another slide of your experience carousel as you develop throughout your career.
#5 "Who is a Crisis Leader that influenced your career?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "Who is a crisis leader that influenced your career?"
So when we talk about those folks who have influenced you over the years, I think that influence truly works both ways.
Certainly what you want to do is put yourself in places and positions to get the positive influence or the positive outcome at the most number of incidents that you could possibly go to.
Conversely, I can't help but recall that throughout my career there were also folks who provided me with the opposite of that.
So that I would also put that into my slide carousel, that in certain situations I wanted to make sure that I didn't react or overreact in a method that some folks have a tendency to do.
And that's probably that negative leadership, negative crisis management, that you want to be involved with; so it works both ways.
So I think you have a conscious decision and you have the ability to put yourself in places and positions and surround yourself with people to provide you the positive experience and that is exactly what you have to do.
And again, I think you need to do that within every position within your organization from the bottom all the way to the top.
And recognize who it is that you want to work with and how they're going to influence you from the basic positions within your organization to the leadership positions.
We are incredibly fortunate, as you can imagine, we have every level of that experience and some cases intimidation, within our department, and as long as you're utilizing the positive examples of that, you're going to be certainly better prepared.
So it's a matter of working for and with those people.
Immersing yourself, especially in training. There is no alternative for immersive training and preparing yourself and your people and providing your people the training opportunities they need to be successful is your only hope for being a successful crisis leader.
They have to be successful every time the bell goes off in order for you to be successful. We have some incredible examples on the Department.
We have a gentleman who coined our training model of: Train as if your life depends on it, because it does.
And that has been our mantra and certainly my mantra throughout my career as I prepared myself.
Again, I made the effort to transfer to and immerse myself with those leaders who had intimidated me, when almost immediately you recognize that if you're there for the right reasons and if you're there to immerse yourself in training and make yourself a better person, then they are going to embrace you and they are going to carry you with them along with their successes.
And that is exactly what I was able to do is work for some of those Captains and those Chiefs who had that capability and would literally live and dwell in the training environment.
And it also became very obvious that when you live and dwell in the training and preparation environment, those other issues that have a tendency to rear their head in the non-emergency environment have a tendency to go away.
Because everyone that comes and wants to work with you has that same mantra of wanting to become better at what they do, so when someone calls and the bell goes off, we are going out and providing the highest level of service we possibly can.
And that's where we dwell throughout our careers.
In a followup conversation I had with John, he reminded me how important it is to "BEWARE of crisis leaders who DEMAND your respect because of the position they occupy in the organization."
He added some additional insights which are worth noting:
"We all know individuals who expect/demand your respect/devotion just because they were able to pass a promotional process and are now in a position of authority.
Needless to say, the true crisis leaders are those that have EARNED your respect through a career of exceptional performance and experience."