Looking Around The Curve: Is That a Crisis, or an Optical Illusion?

by Michael Teague

Your team, your Whisperers, have brought you great information — and now you need a vetting process to sort the true crises from just hand-waving. How do you make sure it’s a crisis you should put resources behind? Here’s a crisp framework to guide you: 

Are They Ahead of or Behind You? 

If your Whisperers bring you yesterday’s front page, a trade association email that is already in your inbox, or a 300-page report, then they are doing it wrong.  You need them to bring you information from other sources like shareholders, stakeholders, local or state government, or peers and competitors.  And they have to distill it into a concise report.

One key sign they’re doing it right: You’re consistently surprised by what they bring you.

If your Whisperers’ information isn’t surprising you, then you need to go back to leading them (here is Leading Your Whisperers) so they can find and bring to you those really valuable nuggets that are going to make an impact for your organization. Questions to ask yourself: Do they understand their mandate? Have they identified and built in mechanisms to escape their biases — and yours? 

The Vetting Process

Once you are satisfied that your whisperers have brought you new potential threats to your organization, you need to initiate and be part of vetting those threats. The decisions about acting on what’s around the curve are yours to make as the organization’s leader, so you better be decisively engaged in this vetting process.  To be really engaged you need to get past your own biases, lean on your experience, and have someone to bounce your thoughts off of.

Vetting: Three Crucial Aspects

You want your whisperers to bring you what they have found — and that starts with listening. 

1. Get Past Your Own Biases. You want your whisperers to be critical thinkers.  But what about you?  What are your confirmation biases and how do you combat them?  As the leader, your biases can influence and weaken the entire process of looking around the curve — unless you acknowledge and isolate them.  

Understand the difference between having a bias and taking a position.  You have bias when you fail to consider opposing positions to yours. Bias blinds you to the limitations of your own view.  Bias also prevents you from objectively analyzing your current position based on new or changing information.

One area of bias to watch for is the herd mentality.  I learn a lot from good groups and associations, but I am always concerned with consensus thinking.  There are too many examples of “leaders” who won’t step away from the herd.  I think a good leader works extra hard to understand their own biases and get past them.  I watch for the leaders who are self-aware enough to step up and truly lead their organizations.

If you really want to look around the curve, you can’t let the herd push you into a position.  Example: When the EPA first announced the Clean Power Plan in 2014, there were a lot of loud responses across state governments.  I was the Oklahoma secretary of energy and environment and we were bombarded with information about this impending crisis — most of it alarmed about the CPP’s consequences for the energy sector in our state.  The deputy secretary pulled the current and projected emissions data for power plants in Oklahoma.  He put together a single chart that painted a very clear picture: Oklahoma would be in compliance with the proposed rule without taking any additional action, based on the utilities’ market-based plans to transition the state to natural gas and renewable energy.  In this case, a great Whisperer used research and data to help me vet — and show others — that there was no crisis that needed a response.

2. Lean on Your Experience. Not everything is a crisis that requires a response.  You, as the experienced leader, must be calm to make that determination.  The difference between a wide-eyed new lieutenant and a calm and cool gray-haired colonel is experience.  Lots of sports analogies fit here; but experience (and the scars it brings) helps leaders remain calm as they plot the best path forward.

Example: The day after I took command of the Tulsa District it started raining…a lot.  I saw that the Lake Arcadia level had jumped up over 10 feet in a matter of hours!  I sprang into action and called the head of hydrology for the district.  Greg calmly explained to me that the basin for Lake Arcadia is very urban so it fills fast and that there is actually 23 feet of total flood storage.  So much for cool colonels.  But it was exactly my experience that led me to call the expert instead of making a rash, and probably incorrect, decision.  It was also that day’s experience that led me to have much different conversations with Greg and his crew in the next storms.  Your experience isn’t just a snapshot; it grows through your interactions with other experts. 

3. Who Can You Bounce Ideas Off Of?  Even with almost 30 years in the military, I always turned towards peers and mentors that I could bounce ideas and questions off of.  As a company or battalion commander in the US Army, I always talked with my fellow commanders.  When I was the Tulsa District commander with the US Army Corps of Engineers, the four commanders within our division were as close as brothers.  As a state-level cabinet secretary, it was a little different: I certainly turned to the other cabinet secretaries and those with more experience in state government, but I also expanded my counselors to include leaders in the energy and environment sector.  I also had two great associations that enabled me to turn to peers in other states: the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), comprising the oil and gas regulators and policy advisors from producing states and provinces; and the Environmental Council of States (ECOS), comprising the environmental directors from every state.  While there are real regional differences between states, there are also very similar concerns.  It was tremendous to use all of that combined experience as I worked through issues for our state.

So who can you turn to for unvarnished, unbiased and useful advice about a potential looming threat?  It could be your executive team or board — but don’t automatically default to those as your only options.  In my experience, I’ve often needed to go outside my organization to find peer leaders.  And when you’re looking for external peers, look both within and outside of your industry or sector.

Your whisperers have brought you great information about what they anticipate around the curve.  Now it is your job as the leader to vet that information, being cognizant of your biases, relying on your experience, and utilizing your peer leaders, to decide how to respond.  How can you build consensus around a response? That’s my next installment.

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