Professional Development: Command Presence

By Timothy C. Cummings CPMM, CAS
Published in the August 2009 issue of
Today’s Facility Manager

What is “command presence?” Definitions abound, but it is simply a set of attributes that causes people to view someone naturally as a leader and inspires them to realize, during an emergency, that person is worth following. In a crisis, it is essential for organizations to have a confident leader who can be trusted and respected. That leader should also have the authority to make key facility decisions during any emergency.

The path to command presence is paved with everyday leadership skills. To a vast degree, leading in an urgent situation is based on how a person operates under normal circumstances. How does that person interact with staff? What techniques are used when making presentations? Does that leader conduct effective meetings? Can he or she make the tough decisions and back them up? Is that person capable of stepping everything up a few notches when needed—confident, strong, and ready for anything that comes? Is that person you?

Call it a paradigm shift, today’s reality, or the new normal, but face the facts: your facility may present itself as a target for a criminal event. And it always has some potential for a technological or natural disaster.

These are all emergencies, and you need to be prepared to assume your role in the response effort. By preparing in advance, you can determine if your everyday skills can be leveraged in a crisis or discover what enhancements you should undertake now, so you are ready to lead when necessary.

The process of making decisions in an emergency is different than those used in a “business as usual” setting. Because you base your decisions on your experience and the information that is on hand at the moment, you must practice and plan in advance.

Studying leadership in emergencies can be beneficial. Consider “The Tale of Two Mayors”—Rudy Giuliani and Ray Nagin. Were they confident, effective leaders in their respective crises? In her March 2002 piece on crisis leadership, Ruth Palombo Weiss reports, “If a leader conveys composure, as Giuliani did, that will communicate that the crisis is containable….” [Source: American Society for Training and Development.]

In an emergency, people need someone to lead them. Think about it: when something unexpected has happened to you, something you do not have the skills to comprehend and deal with, don’t you yearn for someone to lead you? And based on this new normal, you may find yourself as a leader in such circumstances.

Jonah Lehrer, in his January 17, 2009 LA Times column about US Airways flight 1549 landing in the Hudson River, discusses Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s handling of the crisis. Lehrer says pilots call the skill shown in that cockpit a “deliberate calm” and suggests that it takes practice to remain calm in stressful events. Wherever you are today regarding leadership, both in normal and unusual circumstances, practice is called for.

A disaster has four phases: preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation. [For more on this topic, see last month’s Professional Development story by Tony Rankin.] The more effort you put into the preparedness and mitigation phases, the easier the response and recovery phases can be. In other words, drill before the thrill.

A foundation of good leadership is based on knowledge of possible risks. Before an event, when time is on your side, develop a list of what could occur, including simultaneous problems, and think through how you would mitigate, prepare, respond, and recover from them. You don’t have the same amount of blood in your brain when living through a “fight or flight” situation, so your thinking will be affected. Having a plan and drawing on drills, exercises, and real world experience will permit you to function.

There are obvious advantages to making decisions in a planning process rather than in an emergency. When time is on your side and stress is absent, rehearse for the big one. Gather input from your team, consider alternatives, get buy in, and make your decisions with deliberateness. Then critique it and do it again.

When you are managing an incident, no plan will be followed completely without adjustments, but having one to start from and adapt is far better than winging it from the beginning. When Dwight Eisenhower repeated that Army expression, “plans were useless, but planning was indispensible,” he summed it up well.

Remember that merely standing straight and speaking in a loud voice does not generate a command presence, but there are physical attributes that contribute to being an effective leader in an emergency. Look the part! You will need to be confident, competent, composed, and communicative. If you’re ill at ease with your abilities, this will affect your team and detract from meeting the mission. Before the next emergency, be sure your team can say this about you:

  • You know yourself.
  • You are technically proficient.
  • You are current with the information flow and keep your team (and media) informed.
  • You take responsibility but aren’t caught up in trivial matters.
  • You make sound and timely decisions and stand by them.
  • You have the right level of flexibility.
  • You ensure the team trains as a team.
  • Your image says “I’m in charge.”

And be certain your body language says the right things:

  • You stand and walk with purpose;
  • You keep your eyes alert;
  • You keep your head up;
  • You don’t fidget; you use your hands effectively; and
  • Your voice resonates with authority and confidence

Seems simple, doesn’t it? With practice, it can be. But remember—once an emergency strikes, nothing goes as planned. The more you practice and prepare, the better you and your people will perform.

Cummings is employed by Cushman & Wakefield and manages a two million square foot property in Dallas, TX.