When you’re in the middle of a high-stress and fast-moving crisis situation, it’s easy for your ‘fight or flight’ instinct to kick-in – but as a crisis leader, it’s important to recognize that you need to keep your mind and wits about you as the incident unfolds.
The faculty and research staff at Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI) call this “going to the basement”.
In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & CEO Bryan Strawser and Senior Consultant Jennifer Otremba talk about their own experiences with “the basement” and how to prepare yourself for these situations in the future. Topics include the psychology of crisis leadership, the Harvard NPLI program, how to recognize when another individual is mentally heading “to the basement”, and how to pull them up to where they need to be mid-crisis.
Bryan Strawser: You’re a parent and you have a 16-year-old daughter who’s out on a date. She’s an hour late getting home. Where are you?
Jen Otremba: In the basement.
Bryan Strawser: You’re in the basement. We don’t mean the basement like you’re in the basement of your house.
Jen Otremba: No. Not physically in the basement.
Bryan Strawser: You are mentally in the basement. You’re in the part of your brain that sits on the bottom of your brain, called the Amygdala, which I’m sure I just butchered.
Jen Otremba: It’s pretty good, though.
Bryan Strawser: Come on, you’re the ex-medic. What’s it called?
Jen Otremba: I don’t know how to pronounce it, either.
Bryan Strawser: But, you’re in the basement. You are in the part of your brain that is about fight or flight, right?
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: You’re mad because your daughter’s on a date, and she’s not home. You’re mad at her, but you’re going to strangle that guy.
Jen Otremba: Your stress hormone has peaked.
Bryan Strawser: The stress hormone has peaked. When we talk about this in the context of crisis management, or dealing in a critical moment or situation, we’re talking about that moment of panic. Where you’re confronted with this bad scenario that maybe you’ve thought about and maybe you haven’t. You’ve, mentally, just gone right down the drain to the basement.
Jen Otremba: We call it to going to lock-out in a helicopter world.
Bryan Strawser: Going to lock-out?
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: You don’t know what to do. You can’t act?
Jen Otremba: No. Going to lock-out is when you take the engine out of manual mode and you manually adjust the power setting, but it, basically, will scream at you.
Bryan Strawser: Oh, it doesn’t like that.
Jen Otremba: Well, it’s in an emergency, so you’re using it to give yourself more power, right? We talk about that a lot, “Oh, they went straight to lock-out.” Because, they’re straight to high-speed mode.
Bryan Strawser: Interesting. I hadn’t heard that. I think it’s the same analogy.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: We use this description. There’s a group at Harvard University in the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative program, which I’m alumni of from five years ago, now. Dr. Lenny Marcus and Barry Dorn have spent most of the last decade and some, since 9/11, really understanding how leaders operate in a crisis and how they lead through difficult situations.
They created this concept of meta-leadership. There’s some dimensions to that about how you lead in a crisis effectively and be able to move a situation forward towards a resolution. Part of what they’ve learned is just this mental piece of how do leaders keep their thinking out of the basement? What happens when the leader goes to the basement? How do you recognize that? That’s what we want to talk about for a little bit today.
Maybe we start with how do you keep yourself from going to the basement? How do you keep yourself from going into lock-out?
Jen Otremba: Well, first, you have to recognize that that’s where you’re heading. You’re walking down the stairs right now.
Bryan Strawser: I’m going.
Jen Otremba: This is happening.
Bryan Strawser: The basement door is open, and I’m headed down the creepy stairs.
Jen Otremba: Yeah. Right down the stairs to the basement. I think you have to recognize what kinds of things are going to trigger that response for yourself. Then, once you know that that’s ultimately what’s going … that’s happening, and you can recognize that that’s happening, then you can bring yourself back. You can pull yourself out of lock-out and walk back up the stairs.
Bryan Strawser: Walking down the stairs and walking up the stairs. I remember a moment, though, during … We’ve talked before about an active shooter situation that we went through at our previous employer. It lasted, I don’t know, four hours, maybe, beginning to end. I remember a moment where I was headed down that path.
Jen Otremba: Oh, really?
Bryan Strawser: Yeah.
Jen Otremba: Oh, I didn’t know that.
Bryan Strawser: Briefly. Well, there was a moment where I was … I don’t know how to describe this without giving away things I shouldn’t be talking about. There was a moment where I was asked to post something internally on this internal Twitter-like thing that our employer had at the time. I did post this update, and then there were some questions that came in. When you’re in the middle of the crisis is not the time to be questioning the crisis.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: What I mean by that is there were some pretty critical comments being posted about communication and the lack of a mass notification tool and some things. It was a fair criticism. But, doing it in the middle of things when people’s lives were on the line, and the police were in harm’s way dealing with this situation, was not the time to do that. I had about 30 seconds where I was like, “I’m going to reach through the computer, and I’m going to strangle this individual, because this is not the time.”
Jen Otremba: Yeah. I think, ultimately, that’s really a good point. When you, or others, are heading down in to the basement, that’s a good time to go back to your training.
Bryan Strawser: I was going. I was going.
Jen Otremba: You get used to climb back up the stairs and remember that you’ve been trained. You have to manage the crisis as it’s presented to you. You don’t sharp-shoot what could happen or what maybe did already happen. It’s managing it as it’s coming to you at the time. It’s trusting your training. Managing through it with the plans that you have in place and the decision making skills that you have been provided by your leadership.
Bryan Strawser: Yeah. There was this conversation in my head, where I went from, “I’m going to reach through the computer,” to, “Wait a minute. I’m overseeing.” I wasn’t the incident leader, but I was standing next to the incident leader, and she worked for me. I went through this in my head of, “Okay, I got to keep myself up here.” You can’t see me here on the podcast, but my hand is up here. I’m showing a level, and I need to keep my head up here.
Jen Otremba: He’s on the second-
Bryan Strawser: Not in the basement. I’m on the second floor of the house.
Jen Otremba: He is trying to keep himself on the second floor, so he can oversee, right?
Bryan Strawser: You’re right, in that, I’d been there before. I’d been through other active shooter situations that I had led or been involved in. I had been trained. I had taught this idea of the basement numerous times. I knew that I had the emotional intelligence to handle the situation, but I still wanted to go into the basement for a few minutes.
Jen Otremba: It’s important to recognize your own signs and symptoms.
Bryan Strawser: You’ve got to know. You’ve got to know what’s going to trigger it.
Jen Otremba: That’s right.
Bryan Strawser: For me, it was, “Hey, people. Wait until this is over, because my only concern right now is getting 1,200 people and the police out of that building without harm.”
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: Worry about the rest later.
Jen Otremba: It’s important to sift out that minutia, too, because what they’re saying does not matter right now. It’s understanding what comments actually do matter right now in the moment. Then the rest of it, we’ll have to deal with later.
Bryan Strawser: What do we do when we’re working with somebody, and they’re headed down the creepy stairs?
Jen Otremba: Nobody’s ever had to deal with somebody who was in the basement, who was in lock-out. No one’s ever had to do that, right?
Bryan Strawser: I remember a story from a friend of mine who is a retired law enforcement official from the Midwest, who led numerous high-intensity situations. I think I’ve told this story on the podcast before.
There was a leader, a lieutenant that they were bringing along in the department, to really be his backfill as the critical incident leader as a future career move. During a major incident that occurred more than 10 years ago now, this individual completely freaked out at the scene of an incident, in the command post. Was totally in the basement. They removed him, because there was nothing else to do. Like, “We have to just get him … Go home,” I think is, literally, what they told him. “You gotta go.”
Jen Otremba: Sometimes that is the answer.
Bryan Strawser: This was more of a mismatch. He just did not have the emotional intelligence and maturity to be able to lead a group through this situation. He also was so far gone in to the basement, that there was really no salvaging. But, you can catch people on the crickity stairs going in to the basement.
Jen Otremba: Well, and sometimes I think you can see them as they’re walking down the stairs, and try to pull them out. Maybe they just need a break. We saw this a lot when I was in air evac.
I remember one time I had a nurse. Remember, this was at the height of the war. We were dealing with a lot of patient numbers. It was very stressful for everyone. She was in charge of the whole crew. She was not only in charge of this whole crew of people, but she was in charge of the patient care for many, many patients at one time. That’s very stressful. She had a tendency to start inching down those stairs frequently. We had to, on a couple of times, remove her from the situation, and then bring her back in. It wasn’t like she was permanently removed.
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: The stress level would get to a certain point where anyone would be susceptible to that. I think it’s just watching out for people. Also, if you’re working with a team that you know well, it’s easy to recognize their signs, as well as your own.
Bryan Strawser: It’s interesting to me that part of what I think happens, particularly in longer term crisis situation, is we forget that people have to have rest. They have to have an opportunity to walk away from what’s going on and rejuvenate, not just mentally, but physically, in order to come back and do this again tomorrow or in two days.
I think we think about this sometimes as there’s this big critical moment, and I’m the crisis manager, so therefore, I have to be there all the time. That’s not really true. If you have built the team correctly, even if you’re a one person operation, you have counterparts in other parts of the organization who should be able to run the incident and allow you to disconnect. If it’s a one or two day situation, then probably no big deal.
Jen Otremba: Right.
Bryan Strawser: During Katrina, for example, I was activated for 49 days at a business. People at FEMA were activated for 90 plus and deployed. I talked to a friend of mine at FEMA last night, who has not been home in almost 120 days, who is currently in Puerto Rico.
Jen Otremba: I believe it.
Bryan Strawser: Because, I was attempting to meet with him next week, and guess what? That is not happening.
Jen Otremba: No, no. How exhausting, right? No one can sustain that.
Bryan Strawser: Well, I think he gets a break. You’re in it. He’s in San Juan. He’s not going to get away from that situation.
Jen Otremba: When you’re in it and you’re swallowed up by the basement, if you will, the poltergeist, it’s super easy to get stuck in there or to make frequent trips to the basement if you’re not careful.
Bryan Strawser: Right.
Jen Otremba: I think it’s something that has to do with the preparation for yourself. The preparation for your team. Getting to know your team and trusting each other.
Bryan Strawser: Then, after the incident’s over, I think … We talk about the after-action process, in terms of what went well, and what didn’t, and what steps do we want to take. There’s an after-action process for people, I think, coming out of this, too. Whether it’s counseling or group discussion. Sometimes it’s just the discussion of, “Look, here’s four or five people I went through this with, and we’re going to talk about how we all dealt with this.” Because, there’s an emotional aspect to that.
The after shooter situation that I was describing earlier, when we got the all clear from the police, and we knew everybody was okay, I had to leave the room, because I had an emotional reaction to that. I was worried. I was convinced that people had died.
Jen Otremba: Yeah.
Bryan Strawser: Nobody did.
Jen Otremba: I think everyone went in their separate corners for a little bit after that situation.
Bryan Strawser: We did. Then, we hotwashed.
Jen Otremba: Then, we hotwashed. We’ve talked about this before. We did an initial, immediate hotwash, and then we did some more longterm discussions with folks about that. Which, are sometimes also difficult conversations to have when we’ve made a slew of mistakes-
Bryan Strawser: We absolutely did.
Jen Otremba: … or when we need to rectify some plans and things like that. You can see people going into the basement, too, when they’re being judged and criticized. But, I think, that’s part of remembering that you’re not personally being judged and criticized. It’s your training, it’s the plans, it’s the preparation, that’s being criticized [crosstalk 00:12:51].
Bryan Strawser: You want to be better and that causes that.
Jen Otremba: Absolutely. Yep.
Bryan Strawser: I do think another aspect of staying out of the basement and being effective about this, is how you exercise. How do you practice what’s in your plans to do? Because, the more realistic, the more nonlinear, the more stressful the practice is, the easier this becomes, in terms of making decisions and dealing with the emotional aftermath of those decisions and being able to work through that.
Jen Otremba: Yeah. I think in exercises, too, you can get a glimpse of how people will respond in those stressful situation. If they’ve never been placed in a situation of stress, they themselves are not necessarily going to know what their reaction’s going to be like.
Bryan Strawser: The goal out of all of this is to stay out of the basement. Recognize when you’re headed into the basement and when others are headed there, and how you can help stop their path down the creepy, crickity stairs towards the poltergeist, as you said.
Jen Otremba: There’s scary things in basements. Let’s all be honest, okay?
Bryan Strawser: Yes. The scary things in basements in movies, so you want to stay out of there as best you can. Helping people understand that they’re headed there, or recognizing that you are headed there and bringing yourself back up to the first or second floor of that house is where you want to be, to be an effective leader.