Jeremias Alvarez


May 10, 2022


Today’s most effective business leaders know about risk. They consider the full playing field before making a move. “What are the pitfalls of this business decision?” “How might this new offering help or harm our reputation?” “How can we mitigate the most negative impacts?”

These are enterprise-level decisions that may take weeks or months to consider. In these situations, leaders do best when they offer a clear vision, a consistent approach, and a collaborative environment for identifying and analyzing risk. But as we return to the office post-pandemic, we must reconsider the novel risks that we may have left behind in 2020. Back in the office, a leader may find they need to make a truly life or death decision in a matter of seconds, not weeks or months. Are you ready to do that? What comes next is a true story.

It’s just before 2pm on a Tuesday. You have invited a client team to your office for a strategy session. You’re in a good-sized meeting room, with 8 of your people and 5 from the client sitting around the conference table. You stand at the head of the table, dry erase marker in hand.

Without warning, the conference table begins to vibrate. The windows and doors begin to rumble. The daydreamers snap back to the present and look around the room in confusion. You can see the panic setting in as all eyes turn to…you. Someone on your team shouts, “It’s an earthquake!”

Emergency managers call this a “no-notice event,” when we are caught off guard by a potentially dangerous and disastrous situation. And as leaders, we must break out of the natural reaction to freeze and act. Harvard researchers at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative call this “getting out of the basement” and re-asserting control over your emotional and physical reaction to a scary situation. Your ability to develop this skill is critical – in our earthquake scenario, your safety and the safety of others are counting on it.

No-notice events require a different kind of decisive leadership than the long-term risks mentioned earlier. To be ready to act, you must plan ahead. Consider the likely no-notice scenarios that can impact your team. In much of the U.S., the likely candidates are earthquakes, tornados, and unfortunately, active shooter events. A call to your community’s local emergency management office or your company’s chief security officer will help you identify and prioritize a quick list of hazards.

Once you know what you’re up against, it’s time to plan and train. Thinking back to our earthquake, what would be your first move in this situation? The science on earthquake safety has made some incredible advances recently, so it’s possible your first reaction is not considered the safest. The Ready Campaign, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says the best thing for you to do is drop to the ground, crawl under a sturdy table or desk, and hold on until the shaking stops. When is the last time you crawled under your desk or the lunch table in the break room? Perhaps it’s time to practice that move.

After learning your hazards and putting a plan of action in place, it’s time to communicate it to the people you lead. Share your findings and tell them what they can expect to happen in these likely scenarios. Ask them to practice earthquake drills alongside you. The Great ShakeOut is an excellent opportunity to join a worldwide community in earthquake preparedness drills each October. Believe it or not, you may also want to ask outside teams and visitors to your building to join in, as well. It may seem silly at first, but others will thank you for your advanced planning if they find themselves in your building when the ground starts to shake. The book The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley is full of true stories of everyday leaders who made these activities a priority – and saved lives by doing so.

The truth of the matter is no-notice disasters provide some of the most challenging leadership environments possible. But with advanced planning and practice, you can be ready to step up and lead when one occurs. And that’s a good thing because your people are counting on you to be ready.

About the authors

Jeremias Alvarez