Leadership Can Be Life or Death

One campus organization faced with a major crisis event mishandles the situation. Another handles a far more challenging situation with ease through a seamless approach to the crisis by campus officials and community public safety responders. The difference between these contrasting responses lies not necessarily in size of the organizations; breadth of resources; or even the scope, scale, and difficulty posed by the crisis. Instead, it usually lies in the quality of leadership at the institution and its focus on safety as a core competency issue. Any institution of higher learning that fails to invest appropriate fiscal resources, time, and most importantly, an appropriate level of priority to these areas is quite simply not as good a school as it should and could be. If student, staff, and visitor safety is not the single most important priority for the organization, the quality of the institution is degraded.

Wake-Up Calls
Much like the Columbine High School shooting and bombing attack a decade ago affected most K–12 administrators, the Virginia Tech tragedy has jolted many civilian higher-ed campus administrators into actions that were decades overdue. Though there are still some campus administrators who remain unconvinced that even the best of institutions can be the scene of tragedy, much progress has been made. The quality of leadership at each institution is most often the most important factor in a campus organization’s status of safety, security, and emergency preparedness. Though major campus crisis situations are relatively rare, they occur with enough frequency not to be ignored.

Learning From Examples
Those in top leadership positions are either held accountable in our courts of law and public opinion when they fail to properly prioritize life safety, or are rewarded less publicly and far less forcefully when nothing major happens because they do an exemplary job in this critical area.  Though it can be easy to carry on each day with a presumption that there is little we can do to prevent catastrophic events, the reality is that there have been many situations to prove that solid safety strategies do make a tremendous difference.

One example from a very different arena would be the survival of the State of Israel. Few countries in modern history have faced such concerted efforts to literally destroy them. Though the country has been attacked numerous times by terrorists, and its military and intelligence network has been caught completely off guard, the country’s ability to survive the concerted efforts to destroy it are almost remarkable. Keeping in mind that a number of other countries no longer exist due to their inability to protect themselves, it is even more amazing that Israel has been able to counter the variety of threats it has faced.

As with nations, high-quality safety, security, and emergency preparedness for campus organizations is a conscious choice. While our institutions of higher learning do not face a clear and obvious threat level to this extent, the point does demonstrate the power of prevention and mitigation, preparedness, and response and recovery measures.

This illustrates that institutions of higher learning are not the only types of organizations where leadership affects the level of safety, security and emergency preparedness provided. From the disaster of the Titanic to the single security breach that resulted in the disappearance of the world’s largest airline, we have seen significant and catastrophic safety, security, and emergency preparedness failures. And while the successes are often not remembered as well as the tragedies that result in large numbers of lost lives, they are fortunately at least as prevalent as the catastrophic events that occur.

A double rescue by Royal Dutch Marines of hostages held by heavily armed terrorists on a train and at an elementary school at the same time would be another example of high-quality life safety efforts achieved with proper leadership. More recent examples include an airline pilot “landing” a commercial jet liner on a river and a flawless tactical rescue operation by United States Navy SEALS off the coast of Somalia.

Learning From History
History has repeated itself in a variety of types of organizations that have failed to understand their real level of risk. History has also demonstrated that great leaders in any setting can avert much tragedy. As in the past, the level of safety at our institutions of higher learning is determined by the caliber of their leadership. While there are still those who do not see its importance, many colleges, universities, and technical colleges are fortunate to have leaders who see safety, security, and emergency preparedness of staff, students, and visitors as their number one priority. We are thankful for and in awe of their dedication.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.