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What's REALLY Going On?

Situational awareness can make us or break us as leaders. Here is a simple tool to help you make better decisions based on what you observe around you.


The power of situational awareness

Last night I read a wonderful story about an emergency room visit in Chicago. A 33 year old autistic man was having a violent reaction to a medication change. His terrified parents drove him to the hospital, weathering the storm of physical violence. As they walked into the ER, he bit his mother hard enough to draw blood, causing her to scream. That's when the security team descending upon the family. Ellen Hughes shares her thoughts of what she saw unfolding this way:

“Picture it,” she says, “here’s this fragile little mom, the aged parents. Walker’s huge and he’s violently attacking me and suddenly there’s all these cops on him. I’m thinking, ‘My God, they’re gonna kill him.’ ”
They weren’t technically cops. They were the hospital’s public safety officers, but Hughes knew how wrong things could go between a big, violent man with autism and a bunch of uniformed men wearing badges, bulletproof vests and stun guns.

What ended up happening was much different:

“I’m scared to death and I’m bleeding,” she says, recalling that day in late December. “I’m sitting there sadder than I’ve ever been in my life and I hear this game starting up.”
In the cubicle where Walker had been taken for tests and medication, he kept bolting off the examination table. Instead of brutally restraining him, though, the officers tried a different approach each time he jumped up.
As Ellen described the game in a recent blog post:
“Walker gets up!” they cheered.
They helped him sit back down.
“Walker sits down!”
And he did.
“Walker scoots back.”
He did.
“Walker lies down.”
For two and a half hours, the officers coaxed and cajoled. They danced. They sang children’s songs. They sang James Brown. They harmonized on the “Mr. Rogers” theme song.

I may have teared up a little as I read the story. The security team read the situation well, adjusted their approach, and created an amazing outcome.

As a cadet at the Air Force Academy, our instructors constantly taught us about the importance of situational awareness. We were taught that our ability to lead, make command decisions, and achieve our mission objectives depended on our ability to read the situation and make appropriate decisions.

As a cadet at the Air Force Academy, we were taught the importance of situational awareness. We were taught that our ability to lead, make command decisions, and achieve our mission objectives depended on our ability to read the situation and make appropriate decisions.

It's no different for those of us leading a church. Regardless of the situation, we need to read what is going on, make adjustments, and choose the proper next step. This is never easy, but it is crucial to our ability to lead well. One of the tools that I have learned to use is called the OODA loop. The OODA loop is a way of processing the situation that you are in, gaining as much clarity as possible, and taking decisive action based on the best available information. It works like this:

  • Observe: This is the constant process of knowing what is going on around you. This is where our ability to read a room, read people, and understand the environmental factors that impact the situation help us make good decisions.
  • Orient: This is where we take our observations and synthesize them with our experience, our cultural understandings, any new information we have gained, setting the foundation for our decision.
  • Decide: One you have observed your environment, oriented yourself to the situation, make a decision. Understand going into this that there is no perfect decision. Your decision will be flawed, but most times no decision will only make the situation worse.
  • Act: Take action on your decision. Once you make a decision, act on it. As you act, be intentional about observing the impact of your actions so that you can reorient yourself and decide again.

This is called the OODA loop because it is always at work. You are consistently working the loop, observing what is going on, reorienting yourself, making decisions, and acting on them. It is a process of consistently making minor adjustments, slight course corrections, and realignments that allow you to ensure that one decision does not have the ability to shipwreck your ministry.

For me, the knowledge that I will be constantly observing and reorienting gives me the freedom to make a decision, because I know that adjustments are a natural part of the process, eliminating the fear of having to make THE RIGHT DECISION every time.

Our security guard friends read the situation well, made the proper adjustments, and found a way to bring a peaceful resolution to a potentially bad situation. As you lead your ministry, and make tough decisions, I'd love to help you gain perspective through observing your current situation, orient yourself to your surroundings, and then make and implement a decision. If you'd like an outside set of eyes to work through a ministry challenge, click here to pick a good time to talk.



Matt Steen

Matt Steen

Matt has served the local church for over two decades as a youth pastor, church planter, and executive pastor. Originally from Baltimore, Matt currently lives in Orlando, with his wife Theresa, and has a B.S. in Youth Ministry from Nyack College and an M.Div. and MBA from Baylor University. Certified as an Urban Church Planter Coach by Redeemer City to City and as a StratOp facilitator by the Paterson Center, Matt has made a career of helping churches thrive through intentionality, clarity, and creating healthy cultures. He is convinced that a healthy church is led by a healthy team with great chemistry, and loves partnering with Chemistry’s churches to do great things for the Kingdom.

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