Greater New York City, NY
Lead Transportation Manager
President; SLP Network
"Always improve the tools in your toolbox ..."
Why they're a Crisis Leader:
Leadership skills and humility go hand in hand, and Ken Walther has plenty of both.
While he is the last person to beat his own drum, when Ken speaks, people perk up.
And even though he has years of leadership experience under his belt, it’s also apparent that many of the traits he speaks about come to him naturally. Both personally and professionally, Ken embodies what we need from a leader during a crisis.
As a leader with extensive familiarity with both the public and the private sector, Ken draws from the best of both worlds to provide world-class leadership from his very full toolbox of resources.
#1 "What is a Crisis Leader?"
Click to read a transcript of the answer "What is a Crisis Leader?"
Crisis leader to me, is the person who has the ability to effectively reduce the duration and the impact of an extremely difficult situation. So, a lot of phrases out there, a lot of, a lot of anecdotal information.
One of the things that comes to mind is someone that can remain calm, cool and collected.
So if you take the opportunity to look that up in a dictionary, it really just references somebody who's not upset or not very bothered by things. And to me that's a bad correlation. 'Cause somebody who's bothered by, not bothered by things, can't utilize some of the tools that they have in their toolbox that are necessary to formulate an effective response to a crisis.
So what are some of those tools?
Some of those tools are things like critical thinking.
The use of critical thinking prior to an incident directly impacts our ability to respond to an incident. Need to think about, and so, what's a practical application of critical thinking?
Well, maybe understanding the ramifications that a decision will have on the outcome of an incident before you actually implement that decision.
Things like emotional intelligence.
Things like situational awareness.
And probably most importantly, is empathy.
Understanding how other people will view the impacts of your decisions on them from a personal perspective, as well as the perspective that they provide during an incident.
So to me, it's, a crisis leader is somebody who can utilize all of the tools, or whatever the appropriate tools are that they have in their toolbox.
#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?"
A few years back I was responsible for the operation of a major transportation network in New York City, specifically in charge of a terminal that was, operationally in charge of a terminal that was fed by four tunnels.
On the particular night in question, there was a train in one of the tunnels that came across a fire, the source of which really, for this story, isn't necessarily important.
What's important to know is that tunnels that trains operate through are very tight, closed. The outline of the tunnel is close to the trains and produces what's called the piston effect as trains traverse through the locations. Well, the train in question came upon a fire, reported it to us in the operation center.
And one of the things that's tough to operate in a railroad situation is they don't have the ability to steer, so there's only specific routes that specific trains can take.
It was our effort to get to the train that was involved in the fire first. In the station that I'm talkin' about there are trains that operate into these tunnels literally every other minute, so the five minutes that it took for this train to arrive on the scene, there were three other trains in behind it already that had left the station.
These places don't have a lotta room.
Smoke was building.
We brought the three following and then what, at least for this portion of the story, could be considered the incident train, got them back into the station.
But what's not immediately evident to people as they operate through these situations is there are other trains with other people on them, so in an adjacent tunnel, there was a train that was awaiting space in a station to actually land at the station and allow the customers to disembark.
Well, as we removed the trains from the tunnel with the fire and the smoke, they actually drew the smoke into the station area and into the tunnel where the train that I'm gonna talk about now was actually sitting.
So, the train in the tunnel about to arrive in Penn Station is now becoming flooded with smoke due to the incident in the adjacent tunnel. And while there is no immediate danger of fire or anything like that on the train in question, the smoke is really gettin' dense.
These trains typically have about a thousand people on board, this train a little lighter because it's in the opposing direction, so probably about 350 people.
I have an engineer on that train who now sees the station filled with other trains, meaning that there is nowhere for this train to arrive.
The smoke is building.
Panic starts to set in onboard the train.
And through the panic that this operating person is surrounded by begins to elevate their level of concern, to the point where they start yellin' on the radio that I need to get in, I'm ready to get outta here, the smoke is rising.
You know, it's hard to, there are lots of tools available to us in a crisis. Being able to pick the right one at the right time is critical at any moment.
This was a case where, you know, radio traffic, hundreds of radio transmissions. You hear this engineer on the radio, the voice level, the inflection is rising.
To me, it created an opportunity.
The opportunity that I'm talkin' about is I went on the radio, cleared all of the other radio traffic that was goin' on, and actually utilized this instance to kinda violate a rule.
Many times when people are involved out in the field they need to know that there are other people thinkin' about them, so I basically got on the radio, addressed the engineer by first name.
Said, this is Kenny. I know that you're out there, and I know the smoke is gettin' worse. What I need you to know, and what I need you to understand is that we're workin' hard to create some room in the station to get you and your folks in, and out of danger. We understand that the situation seems to be gettin' worse in the field, but understand that in front of you, the situation is gettin' better and it's just gonna be another minute or two.
I told her exactly what we were doin' to move other people around and move our other equipment around, and you could literally hear their answer, the change in their voice when they answered, like a breath of fresh air, no pun intended. Very calming, she understood. Answered me, said, Kenny, thank you so much.
And onboard the train, that translates to the customers that are surrounded by the same situation, right?
So, when you have a radio in hand, always remember that you're surrounded by other people and what you say and do isn't necessarily only received by the people that you're speakin' to on the radio. We tend to lose sight of that as well.
So the people that were in the car, where she was stationed, also heard me on the radio. And when I debriefed with her afterwards, it had a calming effect not only on her and the other members of the crew, but on the customers that were within earshot of the radio transmission.
People just need to know that you're thinkin' about them.
People just need to know that you understand the situation that they're in.
People need to know that you have empathy.
That's probably one of the biggest tools that you have in your toolbox when you are surrounded by the chaos that we are often surrounded by in these situations.
#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?"
The short answer to that question is everything. So let me explain that answer.
It's not that I know everything now, it's that I wish then I knew everything that I have been able to learn up to this point.
Really it's the answer to the question is about growth.
It's about being a continual learner and utilizing again the toolbox that I always reference. It's always putting things in your toolbox.
So whether it's a case study, whether it's a book that you read, whether it's speaking to another person who's involved in your industry and out, probably more importantly outside your industry. It's utilizing those learning opportunities to keep filling your toolbox.
So I'll never know everything, but man, do I wish I knew then what I know now because there are tools that I have gleaned from other people that I could have applied in this situation and maybe not in the exact moment of time with the situation, situations ebb and flow, but maybe in my earlier response or maybe in my closure of the incident and documentation of the incident, maybe it's through some of the lessons, the principles of lessons learned and being a learning organization and implementing that throughout your organizational structure.
So what I know now that I wish I knew then, again, everything.
#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?"
Someone that wants to improve their own crisis leadership.
The best advice for that I can give is to be a continual learner and to utilize opportunities that aren't always evident in your particular field.
Yeah, one of the people that influenced me was an academic and they taught me to utilize tools like the internet to pull information out from other genres and utilize information from other businesses.
So what would my advice be?
Either use the tools that are available to you in a non-traditional method or get a, because as leaders we don't always have time to look up stuff on the internet or read case studies and do all that kind of investigative thing.
Maybe you hire somebody.
Maybe you give it to a member of your staff, the person that we hired was exactly what I described, an academic, actually at times in his career was an inspirational speaker.
I learned so much from that person from a non-traditional perspective.
So my advice to somebody who wants to improve their skill set is to think outside the box and think outside the traditional lights and sirens kind of crisis intervention and identify opportunities to fill your tool box.
#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?"
The crisis leader that influenced my career the most, is, somebody who, in most circles, may not be considered a crisis leader.
He was hired by my organization to improve communications for, from a customer perspective.
What's important, in this discussion, is that, he was an academic.
And he taught me how to research things or look at things from a completely different perspective than our traditional operations-based nuts and bolts perspectives. He taught me how to go on the internet, or the value of going on the internet, in, and utilize reporting and lessons learned from other organizations.
He actually helped me to create an entire lessons learned section in our organization. He taught me the value of utilizing others' experiences, and applying them to situations that may not be exactly the same.
Our influence doesn't always come from people that we're standing next to in the heat of battle.
Your influence can come from people who were standing millions of miles away, in a situation that was completely different.
I've learned lessons from leaders of commanders of navy ships.
I've learned lessons from people who were in charge of wildfire response.
I've learned lessons from people who were in charge of public relations firms, whose messages went out incorrectly.
The way that I've learned those lessons is to apply that academic approach. Is, to understand what the issue was, and the tools that these people, individually, utilized, in their specific situations, and then, through my critical thinking, apply those tools to the situations that I think may occur, before they even happen.
So that you can formulate your response to things, and have, you know, we can't all plan for everything that's gonna happen, right? But, through the thought processes of the academic world, situational awareness, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, all those things are of a piece in our response to events, that ultimately influence other people's thought processes and make us effective leaders in the field.
When people understand that we empathize with their positions, be they people that report to us, or people that are involved in situations beyond their control, when they know that their leadership has empathy, and can understand where their perspective lies, that their perspective lies in a response, that is a win-win, that I could never have learned, had I not, 'cause, we always don't have the ability for field experience.
So, we need to couple our field experience with those of the academics, to understand and formulate an appropriate response.
So, my influencer, probably has never been to the scene of a fire, or a crash, or anything like that, but has helped the people, has helped thousands of people, through events that I have had the ability to influence the response to.