Rule #5: The First Report Is Usually Wrong

wpid-Breaking_News.jpg5. The first report is usually wrong. Be patient and ask questions.

In my military career I’ve had the unique opportunity to watch news bring made, both in Washington and in the field, then watch it being reported on TV. I’ve also met many reporters, and in my experience they’re trying their best to tell what they see, but it’s also been my experience that the “breaking news” first reports are at best incomplete and at worst completely wrong.  That situation is not confined to journalism.

The first reports aren’t usually wrong because the people reporting the news are trying to get it wrong.  The first reports are usually wrong because in fast moving situations it takes an enormous amount of skill and patience to sort through to find out what’s really going on.

Everyone expects a little chaos in an emergency situation, so commanders and first responders learn quickly how to sort “possible” from “probable” and “true” from “false.”

Those same “sorting” skills are useful in any situation when leaders have time-sensitive decisions to make and the information is coming at them in rapid bursts.  Perhaps the hardest thing to do in a scenario like that is to breathe deeply and patiently ask enough questions to determine the veracity of the report.

The reason it’s hard for leaders to be patient is that there is pressure to act now in a crisis.  No matter if it’s a terrorist attack or someone forgot to notify the customer their order is messed up, subordinates and teammates will look to the leader and demand action.  What’s more, leaders often pressure themselves to act, sometimes painting themselves into a corner where action is both inevitable and unwise.

Good leaders resist pressure to act until the time is right for action.  Somewhat counter intuitively, sometimes the best decision is not to act.  But act or not, the leader has people looking at him wanting to know what’s next.

Now, before I go on, there are certainly many instances where some action now is better than the perfect action later.  Combat or an emergency situations are times when it’s important to act immediately rather than later.  It doesn’t mean that those quick actions are rash or uninformed, rather, the soldier and the first responder train to face uncertain and dangerous situations so that they’ve done their “cold consideration” many times over before engaging the enemy or running into the burning building.  But these instances are not the point of Rule #5.

Rather, the purpose of Rule #5 is for those crisis situations where there is a little time to figure out what’s true and what isn’t.  In those situations, the skilled leader takes a deep breath and thinks before he acts or speaks.  The skilled leader is patient while she sorts out where she needs to put her attention.

Last tip: be sure to separate your skepticism of the accuracy of the first report from the truthfulness of the person making the report.  People are usually doing their best.

That requires the leadership maturity to be patient enough to figure out when and how to act.

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