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3 Ways to Cultivate Courageous Helpers

Saturday Spark #31

By Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder & CEO

Four years ago, on a high-speed train trip from Amsterdam to Paris, a man armed with nearly 300 rounds of ammunition started shooting passengers. As panic and chaos ensued, three young American men on a backpacking trip through Europe, tackled and subdued the shooter. Although wounded in the fight, Spencer Stone then provided life-saving treatment to a victim. For their efforts that day, they were awarded France’s highest medal, the Legion of Honor.

Eighteen years ago, as dozens of people laid trapped and burnt on the Sky Lobby of the North Tower, a young man, his face wrapped in a red bandana, picked up a wounded woman and then shouted to others to follow him down a stairwell. When he connected with firefighters, he handed his group to them and then went back up. Welles Crowther, a 24-year old rookie equities trader who worked on the 104th floor, led more than ten people out of the building safely that day. His body was found alongside a large group of firefighters trapped on the ground floor when the building collapsed. In 2006, he was only the second person to be named posthumously as a member of the New York City Fire Department.

I recently read both these stories and pondered two things. First, as a parent, how do you raise children who, in a time of crisis, will be courageous and helpful? Second, as a leader, how do you create a culture of courageous helpers? People who, when faced with fear, uncertainty, and change, figure out exactly what they can do to help.

In reviewing these stories and others of personal leadership in tumultuous times, three themes seem to emerge:

Training
Welles Crowther was not only an equities trader, but also a volunteer firefighter in Nyack. Two of the three men on the train were members of the US military. In the stories of business crises, it’s people who could run financial scenarios and make good decisions quickly, who had strong relationships in the industry and could galvanize needed support, or who were calm and clear with the media, customers, and employees who helped. Therefore anticipating what crises may occur, determining what skills are needed and ensuring you have access to those skills is critical.

Practice & Planning
As a volunteer firefighter, Crowther had practiced searching smoke-filled rooms and fiery structures and carrying out heavy dummies, so the conditions on 9-11 were not shocking to him. Stone studied Gracie Jui Jitsu and credited his practice to be able to subdue the shooter. While certainly, the situation had to have been terrifying, both had practiced what to do enough that instinct kicked in.  

At work and home, we may do this for physical threats, like how to evacuate the house or building in a fire. But how often do we “practice” our response for other types of turmoil: the loss of the largest customer, the incursion of a bad virus, or the implosion of a key vendor. Have we talked with our teens what to do if they see bad decisions being made around them? The more that we practice and plan with colleagues or kids what to do in those scenarios, the more people will know how to help.

Personal Agency
Sometimes all the training and practice in the world will not prepare you for what hits. So who responds best in those situations? One common thread among courageous helpers is a strong sense of personal agency, or internal locus of control, combined with a history of service towards others. People with a strong internal locus of control believe they can make things happen. People with a strong external locus of control believe success or failure is due to things outside their control. People have a natural disposition towards one or the other, but you can help yourself and others develop a stronger sense of personal agency. 

For parenting, it involves giving kids a lot more freedom to make choices and learn to handle the consequences. Recommendations include more time for the arts, thinking and questioning, and unstructured play. 

For leaders, tips for coaching personal agency are found in literature about developing resilient teams. Recommendations include letting people choose their duties, reminding people you are all in it together, and being an ally, not a critic.

Ultimately, no one knows how they will act in a crisis. However, I’m certainly more aware now how critical it is to increase people’s sense of personal agency. That outlook, combined with relevant training and practice, has the best chance of creating teams, and kids, who will be able to navigate whatever life or work sends their way.

Quote of the Week:  “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” – Fred Rogers

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What is Saturday Spark:
As the leader of a purpose-driven company, I’m challenged daily to ensure our company is “walking the walk” and that I’m personally leading with purpose and impact at the forefront. The result is that I read, think, and learn a lot about the intersection of purpose, impact and leadership and have a few successes and a lot more “lessons learned.” I realized that my own insights may be helpful to other purpose-driven professionals if I took the time to reflect each week. If you find this inspiring, practical or helpful, I’d be honored if you shared it with your colleagues, your families and your friends.

Read Previous Week’s Spark: Why Psychological Safety is Key to Improving Diversity

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