Active Shooter Incidents: An Unexpected Lesson in Personal Leadership

Active Shooter Incidents: An Unexpected Lesson in Personal Leadership

On Friday, I provided staff support for the Planning for and Responding to Active Shooter Incidents Workshop jointly sponsored by the Florida League of Cities and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Roughly 100 folks attended, a large and engaged audience from across the municipal landscape. In addition to representatives of law enforcement, there were firefighters, councilmembers, mayors, managers and a smattering of other municipal employees. As one mayor said to me, the subject, unfortunately, is on the mind of everyone.

And with good reason.

In her keynote address, Katherine Schweit, chief of the Active Shooter Section, Deputy Director’s Office of Partner Engagement of the FBI, shared key findings of a 2014 study of active shooter incidents in the U.S. from 2000 to 2013. What the FBI analysts found, after excluding incidents in domestic settings, gang-related violence, drug deals gone bad and related events, is that there has been an increase in active shooter incidents, with a resulting increase in casualties (excluding the shooters themselves).

Over 40% occurred at places of business and commerce. Over 20% occurred at educational institutions. On average (and this number, interestingly, has not changed) two victims died, and two were injured.

All told, the FBI tabulated over 1,000 casualties (almost 500 fatalities) from active shooter incidents.

Troubling data that, to my surprise, provided the backdrop for a personal moment.

I was in the morning session when the FBI presented Run Hide Fight, a training video designed for the general public to teach what one ought to do if faced with an active shooter incident.

I chose to leave.

The emotions that rose up from hidden depths were profoundly uncomfortable. I could have toughed it out, but the cost at that moment would have outweighed the benefits.

So I left.

In the relative peace of the conference center hallway, I began the uncomfortable and oh so necessary work of examining the roots of my response.

I have had personal experiences with gun violence: being held up a gunpoint; having a beloved boss shot dead while he was trying to defend a co-worker; arriving on scene as the bodies of two of Tampa’s finest were being transported away from a fatal confrontation with a truly bad man; attending the funeral of another officer and friend killed by a bullet that found its way around her armor.

Those were tough moments in my life. But when I brought them to mind, the emotions that had prompted me to leave the session did not surge.

So I looked deeper.

I reflected on the moment I had left: the frightened but determined office workers who were arming themselves for that last (perhaps truly last) option: fight. Men and women, big and small, grabbing whatever they could find and agreeing quickly to go all in, all together, if the shooter came through the door.

And then . . . I saw my daughters . . . two, specifically. Both young adult women. Both of whom had been, at a recent time, on the razor’s thin edge of grave danger.

That was it. I couldn’t help personalizing the moment, not about me, but about others I love.

I won’t say that I couldn’t have handled it. I could have. I’ve faced much, much worse than a graphic video.

I chose not to. Because the emotional cost of maintaining my professional persona while my insides twisted would have been fairly high. And there was the risk that my response to someone I was there to serve would have been less than my best because I was spending my internal resources on managing the emotional churn.

On another day, in a different context, I will watch this video and learn.

But Friday, I was reminded of something else I have learned that is, for any of us who would lead others, a vital lesson.

Face our demons. Count the cost of fighting. Walk away from what wounds us if we don’t have a necessary place in the fray.

Save our strength for the fight that really does matter.

I think of that as exercising personal leadership.

Such personal leadership involves sacrificing a bit of our self-image and pride for the sake of the moments when we will need all we have (and more) to do what we ought to do.

Leading ourselves away from unnecessary emotional struggle allows us to be our best where we are needed most. And being our best when it matters is worth the price of showing at other times that we are, after all, simply human.

Hmmm . . . maybe that’s being our best, too.