Establishing a chain of command

Very recently in Sydney there was a hostage situation where an armed gunman stormed into a Lindt Chocolat Cafe near Martin Place and took around fifteen people hostage. As one can expect, the event resulted in an immediate response and action from the Australian police force and emergency support services. The event was covered by the media worldwide.

Watching the unfolding of this event revealed something interesting and insightful about leadership. In the very early stages of the operation, the NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn released a statement to the media that  included these words:

We’ve set up our command and control protocols. When we do have a major incident such as this, we set up our police operations centre … so that we are ensuring that we have the best police response, that includes investigators, that includes logistics, that includes all resources and long-term planning.

It struck me that in the heat of the moment one of the first things the police force established was a proper chain of command an a proper operations centre. They didn’t just charge in guns blazing, they first figured out who is in charge of what.

The marriage of responsibility, authority and accountability

There is a commonly quoted phrase:

With power comes great responsibility

This is, of course, true. However, it should also be bidirectional. This statement emphasises the one direction (from power to responsibility) without clearly emphasising the corollary: With great responsibility comes power (and accountability). When someone is tasked to do something difficult and given the responsibility of achieving that thing, they also need to be given the correct power to take action and make important decisions.

What was reflected very clearly in the police’s approach was an understanding of this critical principle. The police were tasked with (made accountable for) the safe retrieval of the hostages, and one of the first things they did was establish a proper chain of command and gave certain key, experienced and very capable individuals the power to make the important decisions that they needed to for the safety of the hostages.

These three concepts stand in a triangle — authority (the ability and power to make important decisions, sometimes on behalf of others), responsibility (being “in charge” of something, being tasked with achieving something) and accountability (having to report to someone about the progress of something) — and a key step in getting anything done is establishing a chain of command whereby certain capable individuals are given all three of those within a particular scope.

Getting something complex done

The resolution of a hostage situation is complex and burdensome. It’s something that any single individual cannot bear alone. Hence for this, and many other tasks like it, the project would be broken down into sub-tasks or sub-projects. For example, in the hostage case someone is responsible for keeping the media at bay and satisfied with updates, someone is responsible for feeding the task force while they endure a lengthy hostage stand-off, someone is responsible to stand at the front line and make critical life-and-death decisions as hostages emerge from the building, and so on — and leaders for each of these sub-tasks are created: a chain of command.

In this way there is no ambiguity when it comes down to action and who is responsible for what.

Do we need emergencies before we do this?

In an emergency with a competent police force — it’s obvious that this was the right choice and a good idea. It’s also obvious that they knew to do this due to pre-established protocols. But — for us — do we need to wait for an emergency to come upon us in our personal lives or workplaces before we get the critical gears in motion of accountability, power and responsibility?

Often it’s just much easier to float on without pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones to establish these much needed protocols. In the workplace, at our homes, in our communities, much would get done if we could just step out and be clear on who is in charge of what.

Thanks to the Australian police force for reminding us of these key principles for success in life and teamwork.

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