x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

On this endless business of order against chaos

When we are faced with crisis, it is not about how brave we become, but about the use of good leadership practices.

I still remember my first ride on the Paris Metro. I was walking down the stairs when a deranged person interrupted my path, and wanted to punch my face. My body's only reaction was to freeze and shut my eyes.

That might not sound so bad. But imagine that you work in an elementary school, and a crazed gunman blasts his way through every classroom attacking both children and teachers just like what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last month. What would you do? Call the police? Try to snatch the gun out of his hand? Or lock yourself and your students in a classroom?

Or imagine you were standing on the sidewalk waiting for the signal to go green, when a little kid trips and falls on the road. Do you watch, horrified, as the cars run him over? Or do you quickly bend down and pull him up?

These are situations that require leadership that any of us could face. And the answer we would like to give for each scenario might not be the best way to respond to the circumstance. Of course I personally wish I could stop a crazed gunman at a school. And I would have loved to help myself out of my Paris situation. But would I really be able to do that?

When we are faced with crisis, it is not about how brave we become, but about the use of good leadership practices.

When the teachers at Sandy Hook locked their children in their classrooms, they did so because they underwent training to deal with such threats. Similarly, at our organisation we know that we need to take a certain exit staircase in case of a fire, because we practised it in multiple drills. The military appreciates and understands the importance of crisis training. Because unlike most action movies, when people are put in real life situations, the natural human reflex is to avoid hurting another human being.

I practice gun shooting every now and then, and though I aim at a cardboard target, I know that if I ever had to use a gun, I would be reluctant to shoot towards a living creature even if it was for my own safety. That is human nature. That is why military trainers started using organs of animals in practice missions so that when shooters aimed at them, they exploded in a realistic manner, and then when soldiers were in combat, they would keep on fighting and not be startled at the sight of exploding organs, and blood splatter.

But here's the dilemma for different leaders, whether they are school principals or chief executives of banks. This role playing practice model will not work all the time, because sometimes we are faced with the unthinkable, a surprising situation that we never practised for.

The problem with the role-playing practise model is that repeated training will result in us having robotic responses when we are put in a real-life situation. It does not allow us to practise staying calm and thinking critically at the same time.

The best kind of practice to face unthinkable situations is to train ourselves to remain calm, think critically and quickly problem solve.

It may sound easy, but it needs a lot of practise. For instance, though I am a quiet thinker and analyse a situation from different angles, I am a terrible actor under chaos. I become anxious, talk constantly and cannot stay still.

However by practising staying calm, thinking critically, and then taking action, we will be equipping ourselves with good leadership skills. The trick is to prastice doing so daily when faced with minor obstacles, and not wait until chaos kicks in.

By taking small steps, and continually prasticing, we will find ourselves leading, and perhaps saving lives when the situation calls for it.

Manar Al Hinai is an award-winning Emirati fashion designer and writer based in Abu Dhabi