Leadership: Calm Under Fire

In 1964, a missionary-pilot named Burleigh A. Law flew a rescue mission to Wembo Nyama. (I know this story because I lived in Wembo Nyama in ’87-’88.) An eastern Congolese rebel group called the Simbas (Swahili for “lions”) had captured the town; they had been killing Congolese and foreigners alike, raping nuns, and allegedly even cannibalizing their victims on some occasions as they swept across eastern and central Congo. Law knew that other missionaries on the ground were in very real danger and he hoped to evacuate them, so he flew overhead and dropped a note. “Stand if it’s not safe to land,” he said, “Sit down if it is safe to land.”  The missionaries who retrieved the note stood as he flew over again. It is not safe to land. Law landed his plane anyway. He was shot and killed by one of the rebel fighters before he could even turn off the plane’s engine.

A friend of mine who is chief of police in a rural township told me once that the reason firemen are often killed is not for lack of training—it’s usually for lack of respect for that training, fueled by a desire to be a hero. His men are often factory workers and farmhands with little other chances at glory (their high school football days behind them) and he worries that they’ll ignore their training precisely because they hope to be that hero. Their odds are low at heroism: for every fireman who emerges a hero from a situation they shouldn’t have gone into, many more lose their lives for the same reason. Risks are calculated for a reason.

“You know, you send people into war zones, you send people into dangerous situations and into riots, and you worry that they are going to get hurt. … You send somebody out to do a story on tourism and — how can you expect something like this to happen?” Jeff Marks, Station Manager, WDBJ, Roanoke, VA, quoted in an article on CNN.com by Elliott C. McLaughlin and Catherine E. Shoichet, 8/27/15.

Marks said this in response to the shooting that killed two journalists, Alison Parker and Adam Ward, just yesterday (this article was drafted 8/27/15).

In his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb identifies a key issue for leaders that Jeff Marks is today all too aware of: you simply cannot expect the unexpected. You can make all kinds of plans for any number of contingencies, and that’s important, but the fact that something is unexpected and improbable is precisely the reason that it’s impactful.

A friend of mine runs a business that trains emergency personnel and police in deescalating violence. His consulting firm worked with Newton, CT, before the tragic shooting there, and in the wake of their tragedy, the responders won national recognition for their excellent work during the tragedy. Perhaps they saved lives. It’s always hard to say. His firm has been working with Ferguson, MO, police since the resignation of Chief Thomas Jackson in March of this year. Jackson stepped down after a particularly incriminating report from the Justice Department which found that “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing…” (report, p.2.)

Let’s talk about leadership. God willing you’ll never be under fire in any physical sense. But, whether large or small, unexpected things are bound to happen to your business or organization. You won’t really know the nature of your own ability to remain calm under fire until they happen.

  • From Burleigh Law’s death, we can learn to be prepared to listen to the warning signs. Ask your people for signals, and listen to them. “We should not buy this machine, we can’t afford the debt” or “we must take care of this customer no matter what it costs, they are threatening to take their discontent to the internet.” There’s a fine line between courage and stupidity. Know where the line is, and respect it; listen, listen to your people on the ground. That line is the line of humility, and it preserves you.
  • From the deaths of Parker and Ward, we are only reminded that unexpected means just that. You won’t be able to avoid the unexpected. You can prepare and train your staff for contingencies, but not for everything. “Expect the unexpected” is a nonsensical lesson. Be prepared for what you can reasonably prevent, then be prepared to offer kindness to victims of tragedy around you. (How will you treat your employees if your primary buyer goes out of business?)
  • From Chief Thomas’ story, I can only say, be just; it’s the best way to prepare for a moment when you need to de-escalate violence. On the far side of injustice you’ll only find disgrace.

An ancient book tells us what is good: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to dodge evil, or even the unexpected snafu. But the courage to do those three basic things under fire will make you a great leader. The impact of the improbable can be a good thing, too, when the impact is positive – so go be improbably great, and you’ll make an impact to the positive that has longer lasting power and touch more people for the good than any of these negative events I mentioned will ever accomplish for the sake of evil.


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The author lives in Goshen, Indiana with his wife and four children. He is self-employed as a leadership coach working with business executives, writers and other artists, and spiritual leaders. His clients enjoy business growth, increased vision and purpose, work/family lifestyle balance, and freedom from writer’s block.

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