In times of high stress, we want fast answers. As leaders we feel the pressure be decisive. But fast is not always best, and can sometimes lead us deeper into trouble.
What we need is rapid deliberation. With a little help from Wyatt Earp, and people who jump out of airplanes for a living, here’s what I think that means, and how we can put it to work for us.
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Legends of the Old West
Wyatt Earp was a legendary frontiersman of the old American West. By turns a horse thief, saloon keeper, gambler, lawman, entrepreneur, and gun slinger, he always seemed to be in the middle of the action. Yet he managed to survive at a time when life expectancy was notoriously short for people like him.
Perhaps best known for his involvement in the shootout at the OK Corral in 1881, he had a reputation for being fast in a fight. But during an interview later in his life, he shared something that might at first seem surprising – he said that he managed to stay alive because he learned to “take his time.”
“When I say that I learned to take my time in a gunfight, I do not wish to be misunderstood, for the time to be taken is only that split fraction of a second that means the difference between deadly accuracy with a six-gun and a miss. Mentally deliberate, but muscularly faster than thought, is what I mean.”
He captured that idea very succinctly when he said:
Slow and Smooth
We learned a version of this in US Army Jumpmaster school. Jumpmasters are the people who launch paratroopers from an aircraft while in flight. To graduate as a Jumpmaster, one big test was to inspect several paratroopers wearing different equipment in a very short time.
Miss any major deficiencies and you failed. Take too long and you failed. Almost nobody passes on their first few attempts. It’s good that the test is hard, since mistakes could be potentially lethal.
Here’s a short example of part of the inspection sequence. This is when the Jumpmaster begins to check the waist band of the parachute:
“Remove the right hand from behind the chest strap and insert it, fingers and thumb extended and joined, fingertips pointing skyward, palm facing the jumpmaster, outside and around the left adjustable “D” ring attaching strap behind the reserve parachute so the left waistband retainer rests in the palm of the right hand. Make fingertip to fingertip contact, and conduct a physical inspection to ensure the waistband is not twisted, cut or frayed and has been routed through both waistband retainers.”
And that’s just the first eight inches of the strap! For the full inspection, this goes on for 5,312 words over the course of several pages. It is exceedingly specific and exacting, as it should be.
To be successful, the instructors taught us that “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” Learn the sequence slowly, deliberately and with great precision first. With repetition, the discrete steps become a flow, muscle memory kicks in, and speed comes naturally. But if you try to go fast right away, you become sloppy, inefficient, and you miss things.
Haste is the path to failure.
Rapid Deliberation From the Ancients
Waytt Earp and Army Jumpmasters aren’t the only people to have thought this way, or even the first. Lots of smart people have commented about this idea over the years. Perhaps you’ve heard of some of these:
This may all be good counsel, but most of us are not confronting outlaws in a dusty corral in the old west, or doing pre-jump inspections in an airplane hanger before a night drop via C-130.
So what’s the application? When we suddenly find ourselves in a high-stress situation, how do we ensure our responses are fast, but on target?
We need to apply some rapid deliberation. Here’s how.
7 Ways to be Rapidly Deliberate
Anticipate. In The Slow Fix, author Carl Honoré talks about a Formula 1 pit crew that rapidly repaired the rear wing of their car and kept their driver in the race. Beyond just changing tires and adding fuel, the crew had anticipated what could go wrong and were ready to respond when it did. During planning, we can appoint someone to lead a “Red Team” that focuses on problems that might crop up. Then as we refine the plan, we can think ahead about what we’ll do when it happens.
Practice. When it’s time to jump into action, there is simply no substitute for practice. Earp spent hours practicing to shoot straight; Jumpmasters practice for the proficiency test until their fingers grow numb. Whatever actions are required of us, start slowly; the speed will come. If we have practiced enough, when we do need to execute a task quickly, the muscle memory will be there to help us do it accurately. Key tip: don’t just practice for when things go the way we want; practice what to do when they don’t.
Breathe. As a situation begins to go sideways, rapid-fire urgent inputs begin to spin up our “fight or flight” impulses, and counter-productive knee-jerk reactions are sure to follow. To interrupt the cycle, recognize that it’s happening, and regain control by breathing slowly and deeply. As physician, researcher, and stress expert Esther Sternberg tells us, slow, deep breathing actually stimulates a parasympathetic reaction, disengaging the stress response, and calming us down.
Exude calm. But it’s not enough for us to be calm; we need to communicate that calm to others. As Ronald E Riggio, Ph.D., tells us, emotions can be contagious, and some people can be especially susceptible to emotional infection. As the leader, any emotional emanations coming from us are all the more likely to influence other people’s emotional state. So let’s not panic the troops. Slow your speech, keep voice pitch low, and be confident. When we stay cool it helps others remain rational as well.
Reframe. Another way to get control is to re-label what is happening. Geoffrey James suggests that putting a positive name on what we might consider a negative situation can help us gain a further sense of control. Let “threat” become “opportunity,” and “disaster” become “challenge.” By changing our framework from victim to actor/agent, we alter how we see the circumstances, and that opens the door for better solutions.
Do the research. When something does go wrong, chances are someone else has faced the same thing and has shared those experiences. Take a moment to check the checklist, reference the regulation, peruse the policy, or access the after-action report. No need to relearn what others had to find out the hard way. I learned long ago that the best leaders don’t hesitate to consult the literature to make sure they get it right.
Tackle it with Teams. Another heat-of-the-moment impulse is to make a quick decision solo and start issuing orders. But if we take a beat, get some key team members up to speed and see what they think, we multiply the number of brains at work on the problem, develop more complete plans of action, and when it’s time to get to work, people already know what’s going on and can help implement solutions rapidly and accurately.
Rapid Deliberation – The Takeaway
Acting quickly as leaders is important. But reacting hastily is a recipe for disaster.
Instead, look to move with rapid deliberation using the techniques above. When we do, we’ll have a much better chance of hitting the target we are aiming at.
You might be interested in one other quote from Mr. Earp. He was commenting about various techniques that other gunslingers had used. In the effort to save time, some would literally “shoot from the hip” instead of raising the weapon to take aim. Earp thought that was a bad idea:
“From personal experience and numerous six-gun battles which I witnessed, I can only support the opinion… that the gun-fanner and hip-shooter stood small chance to live against a man who, as old Jack Gallagher always put it, took his time and pulled the trigger once.”
I’m glad those days are behind us, but I think the advice is just as good now as it was then. Whatever we are doing, don’t shoot from the hip; take a moment to aim first.
It’s the path to rapid deliberation. And it worked for Earp; when he finally passed away, it wasn’t an outlaw who got him. He died at home, age 80.