CONSIDER — ‘CONTINGENCY THINKING’

Foresight has been a distinguishing characteristic of all great leaders. –John Mott

Greenleaf writes: Contingency thinking relates to things that might happen but rarely do. . .  Part of the confidence of followers in a leader rests on the belief that the leader will not be surprised by the unusual and will act promptly in response to it. . .   …contingency thinkers are a bit rare, but they need not be if the formative years of young people included some preparation for it.

I learned to be a contingency thinker from my father who was good at it and to whom I was very close. 

How do we help folks prepare for the unusual; the event that rarely occurs?  My experience is that when the unusual does appear its impact is challenging and triggers high anxiety in those who experience it.  One way to help folks prepare is buy using visualization.  In this case, the leader can develop a scenario that ‘might happen’ (say a fire in the building) and then the leader can practice visualizing a response.  The clearer the image, the scenario, the more likely the practiced response will actually be employed.

For example, police encourage folks to image a situation that would call for their calling 911 and then to practice the imaging and the calling over and over again.  Why?  They discovered that folks in a crisis actually forgot the number because their anxiety was so high.  Firefighters practice imaging because when they are in a fire they will more likely than not need to react and the inappropriate reaction might cause them to suffer severe injury or even result in their death.  Greenleaf developed such a scenario as he rode the train to work each day.  After many years of practicing, the scene he visualized occurred and he quickly responded (and saved a life because of his quick response).

We can use this type of imaging so we can either respond appropriately or react appropriately (again, firefighters prepare both in order to appropriately respond and appropriately react).  Both are more likely to serve us well because of our efforts to prepare without knowing exactly what we are preparing for.

Thirty-five years ago I was in a hotel in San Francisco; it was after midnight when the fire alarm screamed us awake.  I was on the 15th floor and I had imaged what I would do if the fire alarm sounded (one of my routines when I stayed in a hotel).  When I emerged from my room there was an elderly couple standing in the hall; frozen with fear.  She was in a wheel chair.

Two things then happened.  I guided them to the stairwell and upon arriving at the stairwell there happened to be a strong, burley young man standing there.  He looked at the woman.  He did not hesitate.  He gently lifted her up and carried her down the 15 flights.  Her husband and I followed; I brought the wheel chair down.  When we had settled in outside the young man said that he had mentally practiced saving someone by carrying them down a flight of stairs during a fire.  I had imaged helping folks get to the ‘escape route;’ I had not imaged helping another go down 15 flights.  The young man had imaged helping someone get down 15 flights; he had not imaged helping others find the ‘escape route.’  Together we were able to help others.

The more we develop a habit of planning for the unexpected, for the unusual, for the rare event, the more likely we will be able to respond and/or react in appropriate ways.  The event, we need to remember, can actually occur although it rarely does.  I have stayed in hotels in many different countries for many years and only twice has the fire alarm sounded – yet, each time I stay, I visualize what I might do if it does (I am still not able to carry a grown person down a few steps much less multiple flights; I therefore, also visualize a burly young man standing by to help).

Fear is the mother of foresight. –Thomas Hardy

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