In Times of Crisis, Focus on Your Span of Control
Leadership requires fearlessness, and that’s never truer than in a crisis. When problems and setbacks occur, everyone looks at you, the leader, to see how you are going to react. As the leader, you have to steer the ship and prevent yourself—and others—from panicking. Panic-stricken people do not make good decisions, nor do they inspire confidence in their team.
As the US Navy’s first female F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot, I’m familiar with handling crisis and operating under pressure. One of the most valuable tools I got from training is understanding my span of control. And it’s a practice that can help any CEO lead an organization through even the most trying of times.
In the corporate world, your span of control is the number of direct reports you can effectively manage at one time. But in the Navy, the idea is a lot broader. Your span of control is determined by the things you can and should control at any given time. Span of control was how we reminded ourselves what to focus on right now, knowing that the other stuff was outside our control and shouldn’t take up precious mental space. Recognizing our span of control kept us focused on what mattered, and became a primary tool in taming the distractions and pressure of flying demanding, high-pressure missions.
Since active duty, I found myself applying this tool to my personal and working life. Again and again, I have seen its power to keep me sane in the midst of chaos, pressure, and adversity, including some of the most tumultuous times I’ve ever faced. For me, span of control isn’t just a neat concept—it’s a way of life. So much so that I got the letters “SOC” tattooed on the inside of my right wrist. Every time I feel the overwhelm, it takes a glance down at those three letters to remind myself that I can only control so much. And that the best way to conquer the chaos is to stay focused on those things I can control, right now, in this moment.
What Can Be Done?
As leaders, we cannot waste time and energy trying to change circumstances we can’t control. We must accept the things we cannot change, which in turn allows us to focus on the things we do have control over. Even if you can’t change a stressful situation, you have a choice in how you respond. Ask, “What can be done?”
I’m going to share an example that hits close to home for me—and has heavily influenced my views on resilience. Though he probably doesn’t know it, my cousin Charlie Lemon is my hero. At twenty-six years old, Charlie enlisted in the US Army, in combat arms. As an Abrams tank soldier, he deployed in 2010 to Iraq. About ten months into deployment, while out on a routine mission, his truck was hit by an improvised explosive device—an IED. Charlie was standing in the truck. The penetrator went through his legs and also killed his best friend. Although the truck wasn’t badly damaged, the devastation to Charlie physically was profound. He fought for his life over the course of the next few weeks and endured many surgeries in the months that followed. He ended up losing both of his legs.
Yet Charlie has managed with grace the new deck of cards he was dealt. In fact, he has grabbed life by the horns. He now cycles and races all over the world with Operation Comfort. He has done 500-mile races, and he keeps pushing through barriers. He surfs, he fishes, he stays engaged. His next goal is to make the US Paralympics team.
Instead of doubting his capabilities and getting mired in longing for what used to be, Charlie strives to answer the question “What can be done?” He understands his span of control, and maximizes what he does have power over. To do anything less would have been self-limiting. By taking charge of what he can control, he has been able to bounce back and go beyond the typical expectations, exhibiting astounding resilience not just mentally but physically. He has chosen to push ahead and define life on his terms, while blasting through barriers. Some of the most poignant words about his resilience come from Charlie’s mom: “Some people never even get to meet a hero. I am proud to say that I got to raise one. I have been truly blessed to be a military mom.” Amen. Rather than dwelling on a factor he can’t control, Charlie decided he wanted to live a life that is, as he says, “worthy of my best friend’s sacrifice.”
Mission accomplished, Charlie.
As you lead your team through periods of uncertainty, there are some concrete steps you can take to recognize your span of control and use it as a guideline for action.
Acknowledge the situation. Start with yourself. Acknowledge that you feel like things are out of control right now. Examine the outcomes that worry you the most. Sit with the fear for a moment. Feel it and acknowledge it.
Just as important is acknowledging the situation with your team. People need to hear from you frequently in times of crisis, and they need to hear you being open and honest. Maybe you can’t say everything you want to, but let people know that you are aware that people are feeling uncertainty and fear. Again, you don’t want people to panic, but don’t sugarcoat or twist your words. A solid grounding in reality, with yourself and with your team, is required to find your true span of control and recognize what can be done to improve the situation.
Hack the clock. When we aviators face a crisis in midair, we hack the clock—which means we start a timer in the cockpit that will measure the next leg of the flight. Hacking the clock does two things for the aviator: (1) it provides us with an automatic reaction to crisis that reasserts our sense of control even as adrenaline is coursing through our veins, and (2) it subtly changes our perception of passing time as we deal with the issue at hand.
Hacking the clock isn’t just for fighter pilots. When we earthbound civilians hit a sudden storm, hacking the clock is a tried-and-true method for slowing down, taking stock, and not letting this new level of chaos throw us off. During a crisis, noting the time and possibly even slowing things down for a period of hours or days can help you and your organization maintain a more realistic perspective. What are your organization’s main priorities? Get all the information by pulling the team together to get a sense of the scope of the problem.
Wall Street’s “circuit breakers” are a great example of hacking the clock. As Stacy Cunningham, president of the New York Stock Exchange, explained, “market-wide circuit breakers enforce a trading pause so that investors have time to absorb information, better understand what’s happening in the market, and make decisions accordingly.”
Focus on what matters. When you or your team faces a crucible, laser-like focus becomes more important than ever. You’ve got this giant weight on your shoulders, but you have to find a way to still keep your eye on the ball. People are still relying on you. So start with the big picture. Take a quick inventory. What do you see from the thirty-thousand-foot level? Sometimes you have to go even higher, maybe to eighty thousand feet. First, are you alive? Okay, then you’re still in the game. I am not being sarcastic here. When your world is crumbling around you—because of a death in a family, the loss of a limb, divorce—tomorrow doesn’t even seem tolerable, let alone getting through today. But if you’re alive, there’s reason to hope.
Then, when you feel as though you can breathe again—and maybe make it until lunchtime—step it down a little. Zoom in on what really matters to you: your core values, your purpose. What are the most important parts of your life today? Family? Work? Community? Self-development? The legacy you want to leave? Things might not look so great right now, but if you have embraced your new reality and can focus now on what matters most to you, you’re on your way to making a comeback.
Now analyze your part or role in the new reality, and plan your course of action. What are the next steps? What are the top three things you and your team need to focus your time and attention on? When you have too many priorities, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, overloaded, and hopeless. Focus on what matters! As we say in fighter aviation, “If you lose sight, you lose the fight.”
Take action. Finally, look forward and take action! Action conquers fear. It may not eliminate it completely, but acting on the items that are firmly in your and your team’s span of control can give you back a sense of power. Even if you feel afraid, anxious, disappointed, or completely screwed over, move quickly from analysis to your plan of action. Respond. Be intentional. Work on those top three priorities. Feel the fear, and do it anyway. Nobody can prevent you from choosing to move forward and be exceptional. Do something specific that can lead to a more positive outcome. It may start with picking up the phone or just getting out of bed, but whatever it is, keep moving forward.
When you get hit with adversity, it’s important to take stock and then keep moving. Find the opportunities hidden within the obstacles. Do something positive with what happened to you. Those who survive and thrive are able to turn setbacks into successes and roadblocks into stepping-stones. Fearless leaders discover meaning in every mishap, and they emerge not just stronger but better equipped with tools to lead
As humans, our resilient mindset is our superpower. We have a keen ability to reconstruct narratives and redefine moments and learn from them. This is the perfect place to start as you identify your span of control. Because one thing that is always—and I mean always—within your span of control is your attitude, resilience, and mindset.
Excellent article and reminder to one retired USAF KC-10 Flight Engineer. This is perfect advice. Pay on my congratulations to Charlie. He is amazing hero. I salute you both.