What the Dog Whisperer and a Navy Pilot Can Teach You about Leadership in a Crisis that OSHA Can’t

OSHA, the EPA, DOT and other agencies have a lot to tell us about how to create safe working conditions. They can tell us how to handle hazardous chemicals, how to communicate those hazards to others and even what steps to take in an emergency. However, one thing none of these agencies can really do yet is absolutely critical for safety professionals, is teach us how to be leaders in a time of crisis.

Oddly enough, what got me thinking about this topic is the dog my family recently brought home from a shelter. Of course I’ve had dogs before, as a kid, but never as an adult, so I’ve never had to be – in Dog Whisperer terms – the Pack Leader. I started reading about dogs and watching Caesar Milan videos and one theme that came up again and again is the need to be a strong pack leader to help the dog relax and know its place in the family.

What makes for a strong pack leader? Giving firm and consistent signals to the dog about what they should be doing. For instance, our dog likes to jump up on people, which is a dominant act. To counter that, when someone comes into our house, we make the dog sit until we give her permission to come meet the new person. By having to go through us to make that contact, we establish our dominance.

Another way we establish pack order is by taking the dog on long walks where she must stay at our side or a little behind. Even as distractions come up, other dogs, cars, people, we keep her focused on us. Dogs that are allowed to bark at other dogs and react and respond to everything around them become nervous. A strong pack leader helps them relax; our confidence becomes their confidence. When you get nervous, they get nervous.  And if you get scared, it sends them a signal that they had better take control.

So back to safety; I am of course not advocating for safety professionals to start taking workers on long walks where they make them sit, stay and heel. I am advocating for safety professionals to send strong, consistent signals to their staff and to understand how their demeanor in a time of crisis can go a long way toward creating a calm and responsive atmosphere.

Bridging the gap for me between dog training and safety leadership in crisis was thinking about the times I’ve seen strong leaders take over in an emergency and through their leadership and countenance, extend calm and precision throughout the environment. I realize now they were being good pack leaders.

A great example of this kind of leadership took place about four years ago. I live near a nasty intersection where crashes frequently happen. On one eventful summer day, a motorcycle collided with a car, leaving the motorcyclist lying in the middle of the road, conscious but injured. I heard the crash and ran from my house. I was one of the first people on the scene, which was chaotic – people standing around not sure what to do, cars continuing to drive through the intersection, the woman who was driving the car was dazed and confused.

I immediately went to the rider, who seemed the worst off, and tried to get him to lie still, thinking he could have a spinal injury. He was in pain and not really listening. Just then, the daughter of one of my neighbors came running up. She is a Navy pilot (and a featured crew member of the PBS documentary Carrier) and was home visiting before her next assignment and luckily she had also heard the crash.

Kneeling next to me on the pavement she asked if I was trained in first response. I said something like, “I’ve had CPR training…blah, blah, blah.” The tone and weakness of my answer told her she needed to take charge. She looked down at the rider and said calmly but sternly, “Stop moving.” He looked up at her and immediately stopped. It had clearly not been a request but an order.

He looked exactly the way my dog looks when I tell her to sit…calm, submissive. The navy pilot then told me to check on the driver and turn off the car. It was only then that I saw gasoline spilling from the motorcycle, moving toward the car. She picked another person out of the crowd and told them to call for help, and another to stop traffic; all of this in quick succession like she had been rehearsing it all day. She then turned her attention back to the rider and began administering first aid.

That accident scene, which had been chaos only seconds earlier, turned into a calm and orderly scene well prepared for emergency help to arrive. The difference was the pilot’s combination of knowledge, experience, and training – matched with the ability to communicate effectively in a time of crisis. Her competence married to her leadership transformed the scene and created a cohesive first aid team out of a group of strangers.

I recently saw another example of solid leadership in a dynamic, but much less harrowing, situation on my way home from work. A traffic management worker was directing traffic in an intersection that had recently become crazy thanks to several detours on neighboring streets. Over the past week, I had watched different workers in the intersection create more chaos than they fixed, and so I was surprised to come upon the intersection and see things flowing smoothly.

The reason was apparent; the new traffic manager owned the intersection. Unlike his colleagues of the previous few days, he was sending clear and firm signals to the drivers in each lane as to what action he expected from them. Moreover, he was aware of everything that was going on around him, taking in all of the information and making micro adjustments on the fly that avoided problems before they happened.

Thinking about it, the other traffic managers had been poor communicators who spent as much time being angry at the drivers as they did doing their jobs. I believe drivers took those visible signs of frustration as an indication that those traffic people were not competent and in control. It made everyone nervous. Conversely, the new guy was unflappable and drivers responded to his confidence by doing exactly what they were told. Sadly, the next day he was gone and chaos reigned.

As a safety professional, people will turn to you in a time of crisis. How you carry yourself and communicate in that moment will be almost as important as the quality of information you provide. It doesn’t matter if you know exactly what should be done during a chemical spill if people are unwilling to listen and follow your direction. Similarly, to be an effective leader, you must have the requisite competence – confidence and incompetence are a deadly combination.

Safety training is a great way to practice leadership skills. Remember, when you lead workers through safety training, you’re not only giving them the knowledge and information they need to stay safe, you are practicing an important role you must play in a time of crisis – pack leader.

Here are six steps to being a good pack leader in a time of crisis:

1.       Know your stuff – The time to learn is before the crisis comes

2.       Be prepared – Expect that you will be called upon to lead in a time of crisis and think ahead of time how you will want to handle it

3.       Practice – Safety training is as much for the trainer as it is for the worker

4.       Project calm and confidence – This is an all the time activity, not just during emergencies

5.       Provide clear instruction – Communication is key during a crisis

6.       Reward good behavior – Take time to thank and acknowledge workers who are on task when it comes to safety

Don’t forget the final step; positive reinforcement is a huge motivator for both dogs and people. As pack leader, who better to provide it than you?

-          The MSDSonline Team –

If you would like a quick refresher on emergency planning and evacuation preparation, check out our training course: Emergency Plan and Evacuation Procedures.