“They used to say, mind over matter, if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. What they meant was that if you panic and lose your cool, you would fail the test.” — Chris Taylor
We have been blessed to hear from many experts so far and this is no different. We are continuing to explore the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
Today I have Chris Taylor with me, who has over 30 years of experience in four federal agencies, as well as a master’s degree in Public Management from Johns Hopkins University.
His extensive government experience has included two years as an Infantry Marine (4 reserves), three years as a U.S. Customs Inspector, two years as a Special Agent with INS and twenty years as a Special Agent with the ATF.
In his thirteen years as a high performing leader with ATF, he has supervised domestic operations involving firearms trafficking, arsons, and explosives investigations as well as international covert undercover operations and the training of over 1,000 foreign police and military from over 30 countries across five continents.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
Military service runs deep on the Irish side of my family. My great grandfather, John E. Taylor served in D Company, 12th New York Infantry Regiment during the Spanish American War, my grandfather John Taylor served in the Army during World War 2, my dad, Mike Taylor served in the Army during the Vietnam War and it seemed like the normal thing to do. I went to Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, NY. My brother Michael and I would take mass transit together to and from school almost every day. In his junior year of school, he used to want to visit the Army recruiter after school on Hillside Avenue, so I would go with him.
Sometime in 1988, I was sitting in the hallway of the recruiting station waiting for my brother to come out of the Army office, and some giant Marine was walking down the hallway to go into his office. Then the Marine, whose arms looked like they would rip out of the short sleeve shirt he was wearing, approached me. He asked what was I doing in the hallway, then asked me why in the hell was I wearing a pink tie. I told him as my voice cracked a bit, “I don’t know”. He then said, “You don’t know what you’re doing in the hallway or why you’re wearing that tie”. I said both. He laughed and said, “If you want to become a man, come talk to me”. I then followed him into his office and he started telling me about the Marine Corps. I was sold at that first meeting. Actually, I was sold in the hallway. I proceeded to go to the poolee meetings because I was 15 years old and couldn’t sign up yet.
About 15 months later, I invited the recruiter over for my 17th birthday celebration and I would enlist in the Marines. Just as we were signing the paperwork, my mother broke down sobbing, yelling at the recruiter, “you’re not taking my baby, you can’t take my baby”, then yelled at my father, “Mike, don’t let them take him” and she ran into the kitchen followed by my father. I went into the kitchen a few minutes later and they told me they had come up with a compromise.
They would let me sign up for the Marine Reserves now, or I could wait to enlist on my own when I turned 18 a year from then. I didn’t wait and that’s why I signed up initially for the reserves. I went to Parris Island in June 1990, six days after graduating from High School. It was as if they did a blood transfusion for my soul at Parris Island, they took out some of me and replaced it with some of the Marines. Not totally, but enough that it would change the trajectory of my life forever. I was able to focus on tasks, make instant decisions by trusting my instincts and left me a desire to seek out a life of action and adventure that I never thought possible.
They fed my cockiness and arrogance like a horse at a trough, but they also tempered it and gave it some foundation and depth. It was confidence. Real confidence, not like that of my youth that had no real backdrop or depth. My youthful confidence that I projected was not backed by any trials or experiences. Once instilled, this real confidence allows you to do things that you never before thought was possible. I learned to trust my instinct and to seek out a life of purposeful action. This desire for action, combined with my newfound trust in my own instinct and abilities led me to where I am today. After Parris Island, I went to the School of Infantry, and then I reported to my reserve unit, 2nd Bn, 25th Marines in Long Island, NY.
I was activated for involuntary active duty to support Operation Desert Storm about two weeks later. I spent my time at Las Pulgas in Camp Pendleton, CA and the war ended before we even made it to the sandbox. At the time, I was upset, but in hindsight, it was for the best. I went back home in April 1991, and the Marines asked me to stay on active duty to assist the First Marine Corps Recruiting District in Garden City, NY. I stayed on with them until Sep 1991 when Master Sergeant Kelly told me to go to college and get a degree to become a second lieutenant.
I agreed and they released me back into the reserves. I continued as a reservist during college, met my wife, took a detour up to Canada for a bit to live with her and got distracted by life. I fulfilled my obligation to the Marines by 1996 when I was hired on as a Customs Inspector in Los Angeles, CA. Not an illustrious career by any means, but the Marine Corps has stayed with me longer than they would ever realize.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
On June 9, 1991, I was working for the First Marine Recruiting District assisting with a variety of tasks. The Desert Storm victory parade was going to be the following day in Manhattan down the Canyon of Heroes on Broadway. I was told to pick up some incoming officers and dignitaries from the airport because I knew the roads better than most of the other Marines in the District. I took a 15-passenger Marine Corps van to JFK airport and was told to look for “a bunch of officers”.
I arrived at JFK and noticed a Captain waving me down. I pulled over and promptly saluted once out of the van. He told me not to worry about saluting today because I would be surrounded by officers. It sounded like a setup. I acknowledged the order and proceeded to salute each of the multitude of officers that kept coming out of the baggage claim. I had never seen so many officers in one spot. I was a lance corporal, which routinely does not put you into direct contact with too many officers.
After the bags were loaded, I was told to standby, as we had to wait for Mrs. Boomer, who was the wife of the Commanding General of all Marines in the Persian Gulf. Now my butt puckered. Captains and Lieutenant Colonels were high enough rank for a lance corporal to deal with, now I had to greet a General’s wife. My fledgling Marine Corps career was on the line. I had to be on my best behavior.
Mrs. Boomer got into the van in the passenger seat and we began the drive to the twin towers in lower Manhattan. Mrs. Boomer was one of the nicest people I had the pleasure of meeting. She was so polite and talked to me the entire ride. I explained to her the various neighborhoods we drove through, told her where the best pizza places were and showed her areas of Queens where I grew up. I got so comfortable with her that a few times I asked her to pull in her side-view mirror when driving through some tight spots in downtown Manhattan.
I dropped them off at the hotel at the World Trade Center, double-parked the van and went to the command post. I couldn’t believe how many officers were inside that room. I was so intimidated and nervous that I just kept asking if anyone needed coffee. A really nice captain sensed my discomfort and told me to go into the bedroom and watch TV and stay out of the way. He would get me if he needed me. He came back about an hour later and told me to take off, but to return with the van the following morning at zero dark thirty to pick up a bunch of them and drive them to the reviewing stand.
I departed and returned the following morning as ordered. I drove the group to the reviewing stand and then drove back to the hotel to wait for the next assignment. As I was getting coffee, one of the wives from the day before approached me and asked when the van was going to the reviewing stand. I told her that I dropped them off about an hour ago and the parade was going to start soon. She was so disappointed and asked if there was any way I could help her get there.
I went out front and a white Marine Corps sedan and other vehicles were blocking in my van. I asked the Marine nearby if I could use the small sedan to drive this Marine wife to the parade. He gave me the keys and wished me luck. I drove through a variety of roadblocks and police checkpoints and dropped her off in front of the reviewing stand, where all the dignitaries were located. I asked the cop if he could let me back out and he told me the only way to get out was to head north on Broadway up the Canyon of Heroes. As I slowly drove my Marine Corps car up Broadway, the crowd started going wild.
There was an estimate of five million people at the parade and I was driving right down the middle of the route. I drove slowly, waving at the crowds as they were cheering and waving back at me. It was fun and exhilarating. I was an 18-year-old lance corporal being cheered by almost 5 million people along the entire route of the Desert Storm Victory parade. This has been done for major events, for General Pershing after World War One, General Eisenhower after World War Two, and now for some lance corporal from Queens, NY.
I just thought it was great. My biggest take away from that experience was that I was bound to the American people for good. I knew they needed Marines and public servants to make and keep their world in order and to let them live their lives. When times are good, they might not notice what we do as public servants, but when times are bad, they look to us to keep them safe, their families, and loved ones secure. I’ve spent every day of my life since going to Parris Island working in one form or another for the U.S. Government. Thirty out of my forty-seven years serving this country. I will never forget the feelings of gratitude I felt that day.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?
The Marines prepared me for leadership long before I realized it. We are taught that even a private has to know how to lead because if everyone higher ranking than you is gone, you are now the leader. The traits I learned at Parris Island have been with me for years, but I finally got a chance to test them out when I became an official leader at ATF in 2007. I took over an office that had suffered for years with bad morale, lack of focus and uninspiring leadership. I applied the principles taught to me in the Marines, take care of your people first, make sure they have what they need to get the job done and accomplish the mission. I learned their jobs, what they did on a daily basis and taught them what role they each played in the Bureau’s mission. I showed them how important their role was in apprehending criminals, even if it was by using different databases rather than putting handcuffs on the offenders. I turned that shop around in a matter of months and then used these same principles in the next 12 years at every leadership position I have had within the ATF.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The only reason I am here is my wife. When we met in 1992 in Anaheim, CA, I was a young scrappy marine, with more discipline and focus than I had before I joined the Corps. Even then, I really didn’t have a long-term plan. I was still getting into bar fights and not being a responsible human being yet. I met her and she was the nicest person I had ever met.
She was an amazing woman with a never-ending supply of compassion and empathy. We dated for a bit, long-distance because she lived in British Columbia, Canada and I lived in Queens, NY. This was prior to iPhones and FaceTime, so we wrote letters to each other. Three months later, I moved to Canada and found a job building houses. She always made me want to be a better person, just by being with her.
I got my Associates Degree by 1993, we were married by 1994, we had our son in 1996 and six months later, I had a Bachelor’s Degree and a job with U.S. Customs. By 1997, we had my daughter. Twenty-three years later, I have a Master’s Degree from Johns Hopkins and have been a supervisor for 13 years. She was the biggest single influence in my life. My parents made me who I am, and she took that foundation and made me who I am today.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?
A crisis can be many different things to people. Lack of experience, lack of confidence or knowledge will make even the smallest problem a crisis for some people. I personally think the term is overused because for the inexperienced when they hear the term crisis, they actually believe there is a crisis. People should evaluate their situation individually and determine if they are unprepared for the event, if they are not capable of handling the event or if the event outstrips their needs and/or resources.
If the event meets one of these requirements, then you might be approaching a crisis. As for my definition of a crisis, I would say those requirements above are a good starting point, but I have never felt overwhelmed by any situation due to my Marine Corps training, ATF experience, and the confidence these have given me over the years to handle anything that comes my way.
Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?
Planning and preparing for “black swan” or “low probability, high impact” events are what makes businesses and agencies better able to respond to them when they occur. It is hard to prepare for all such eventualities, but no one is immune to these types of events. Whether it be a financial crisis, pandemic, bombings, shootings or fires, they all have common elements. Leaders should be prepared for the next one the minute the previous one ended. The first thing I always do when I take over another position of leadership is to discuss events that have happened under the previous supervisor’s tenure.
You can learn a lot from history, whether a business or federal agency. Learn what happened, how they responded and what the unmet needs were. Then fill those needs so you’re better prepared for the next similar type of event. If an event occurs that is unlike every previous event, you will have unmet needs, but having the following information and resources can prepare you for those eventualities:
- Build confidence and inspire your junior and senior leaders, because you as the leader can’t be everywhere for everybody. You need to have junior and senior managers that instill the same calm and confidence that you want to project. Have depth of leadership during a crisis is vital to a successful outcome. These other leaders should know what their expectations are and have a trusting relationship with you before the crisis.
- Be calm, even-handed and establish trust with your employees during other times of need or lesser crises. Having established a benchmark of calm and appropriate leadership before the current event will keep your people calm.
- Build your network before a crisis occurs because during the event is not the time to start cultivating relationships with people and organizations you may need;
- Have cash reserves or a financial institute than you know can cover expenses in the short term to get you by in the short term;
There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?
Stay calm. Leaders need to stay calm and project confidence and understanding to their employees. People never want to see their leadership getting frazzled or running around screaming when a crisis hits. That will only exacerbate the problem and not inspire confidence in your people. You also need to communicate with your people, via email, in person or via conference call. Tell them everything you can. Reassure them that we will get through this together, just as we have in the past.
Focus on your work, the mission or your family, but make sure you reassure them that this is just a bump in the road and lay out the near term future for them in a positive manner. Paint the picture a month or two out of life/work returning to normal. It might not ever get back to the prior normal, but that’s what people want to hear. The new normal will be similar to the old one, but different in subtle ways. Tell them that also if you want, but just be reassuring. Ask if they have any questions. They will ask you anything if you have their trust.
Most of the time, people do not ask questions because they are afraid of the outcome, especially in an open forum. I have seen this dozens of times in the past. The boss will give a briefing or talk about the state of the organization, then asks for any questions. Crickets. People never ask questions because they don’t have that trusting relationship. I love when my people ask away because you know they trust you.
What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?
Bearing — be calm, reassuring, and empathetic. You should display alertness, competence, confidence, and control.
Decisive — make good decisions immediately. Get all the facts and weigh them against each other. By acting calmly and quickly, you should arrive at a sound decision. You announce your decisions in a clear, firm, professional manner.
Selflessness — avoid making yourself comfortable at the expense of others. Be considerate of others. During a major event that occurred over the Thanksgiving holiday a few years back in Philadelphia, I had a team of thirty people from all over the country. They couldn’t go home for Thanksgiving, so I stayed with them. We arranged a turkey dinner at the firehouse and we all ate together. My wife and kids went to NYC. When people see that, it inspires them to work hard for you and know the next time a big event occurs; you will be there with them again.
When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
Abraham Lincoln — First and foremost, he was the leader of our country during the time which we faced our most severe existential crisis, the Civil War. The way in which he led the country during that time was a mix of calm, self-sacrifice, decisiveness and tenacity that you seldom find in leaders throughout history. Lincoln was a natural storyteller and communicated his idea of the future clearly to people.
He laid out the groundwork for the aftermath of the war while it was going on. He talked about forgiveness for the confederate side and didn’t want to continue the hostility afterward with trials, tribunals, and hangings. He knew the country would never regain its footing if that happened. His people also trusted Lincoln. This trust allowed them to talk openly to him about different approaches and strategies.
Lincoln was also confident enough to take their feedback and adjust his plans accordingly. Lincoln built a valuable network with members of the democrats and others in Washington that he could count on during various times during the Civil War, even building his team of rivals in his first cabinet. Overall, he was a unifier, worked tirelessly during the war and led this country to what it is today.
Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Stay calm — I know this may sound like a broken record, but it is the tool to survive and thrive during a crisis. At Parris Island, we did an underwater helicopter crash test. The instructors would strap you into a fake fuselage, put on blackened goggles and turn you upside down under water. The only way to navigate out of the helicopter is to not panic. They used to say, mind over matter, if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter. What they meant was that if you panic and lose your cool, you would fail the test. I remember getting into a Zen-like state before they flipped me over. That is what you have to do if you sense a crisis is emerging.
- Trust — You are in the leadership position because someone had faith in your knowledge, skills, and abilities enough to promote you to that level. Have confidence that they made the right decision. Trust that person and trust the people you lead to do the right thing. Trust is a 360-degree relationship with your leader, your peers and those that you lead. In my first leadership assignment in 2007, I started with a bad boss. He was a constant micromanager and incompetent at his job and leadership. Thankfully, he was short-lived and my next boss was an amazing leader. We met, got to know each other and started building a great working relationship. When I trusted him enough, I had some grandiose ideas that I ran by him. Based on our mutual trust, we were able to change the way the entire organization did business. During the winter of 2008 or 2009, we had a major blizzard that crippled the city. No one could get into the city or leave. I staffed a 24-hour operations center and the relationship between us and the changes he enacted before this event allowed complete functionality throughout this weeklong ordeal. It was an amazing relationship, and it still is. He retired last week and I still think to myself, what would Kevin do?
- Prepare ahead of time — As I said earlier, have some extra money around, alternative means to get to your job, extra dry food around the house. These are the necessities most people might think about. Like material goods, people’s minds need the same preparation. You need to cultivate your people to be able to handle everything that comes at them. I prepare my junior and senior leaders for a crisis before it happens by bringing them out and exposing them to other events of similar magnitudes so that when a bigger event happens, they have seen the playbook already. I have brought some of the supervisors that worked for me out to large fire scenes and bombings even if it wasn’t in their job description. I had them shadow me so that in the future if they were in my position, it wouldn’t be their first incident. On my last major scene before coming to Canada, I had three of my supervisors up in Allentown taking care of things and handling things as if they were me. They were an amazing team to watch and I loved developing them as future leaders.
- Delegate — This goes hand in hand with trusting your people, but it goes the next step in using that trust to allow them to do what they need to do to get the job done. As a leader, you can’t be everywhere at once, so you have to trust your agents to take responsibility and act. In one two-week period in November 2017, after a series of fires, thefts, and murder, I was the team leader for over 30 personnel from the National Response Team (NRT) at a major nursing home fire, and I had five different simultaneous enforcement operations and significant investigations going on throughout the state of Pennsylvania. I successfully managed a significant number of ATF resources and assets during a span of a week in response to undercover operations, a large-scale fire, a line-of-duty-death, a gun store theft, and an enforcement operation. Through proper planning, prioritizing responses, remaining calm throughout the entirety of events and delegating responsibilities I was able to effectively accomplish all of these events successfully. Within two weeks, we arrested the suspect in the theft of the government funds and the NRT callout ended after a grueling 10 days that lasted over the Thanksgiving holiday. I stayed with the team and arranged for the fire department to cook dinner for everyone during the holiday. The operations in Philadelphia were executed without incident, and within three days, we assisted with the arrest and prosecution of the suspect who killed the police officer. Lastly, all but two of the 72 stolen firearms from the FFL burglary in Lancaster, PA.
- Communicate — The first time you talk to your employees should not be to tell them bad news or that a crisis is coming or already upon us. I encourage leaders of all organizations to build that communication early and continue doing it for as long as you are in that position. Whenever I became a leader of any group, I would meet with them, talk to them and get to understand their personalities and motivations. I would learn their strengths and weaknesses and then focus on building on their weaknesses and highlighting their strength. I would do this through monthly or quarterly meetings, lunches and going to the range to shoot with them. They need to see you and hear from you. This will allow them to look to you during stressful times and know they can count on you to give them the information straight.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
As a leader, one movement I would inspire is to lead with your heart first. You never know what someone is going through in life, and if you are lucky enough as a leader that they trust you, they will let you know. However, always start with your heart. Assume most people are trying to do a great job, they want to be happy and productive at work and they are trying to do the right thing. I have always done this and some will say that it appears weak and that people will get over on me. I do not listen to them. I used to think that maybe I was doing something wrong because it was so different from other leaders I had observed. As I got more experienced, I have found that this is the best recipe for success as a leader. Never yell at or berate your people. They are an agencies most valuable asset and their happiness at work will translate into a much more productive workforce than the alternative. It is amazing at how successful I have been following this simple maxim. When I say success, I mean success for the agency, the employees and the public we serve.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis. He is the modern-day version of Chesty Puller. A Marines Marine. His leadership style is legendary in the Corps and his quotes and sayings are inspiring. I love his leadership style and he is the epitome of what the Marines teach leaders to become. I would also love to catch up with Mrs. Boomer to see if she remembers that drive into Manhattan with me 29 years ago.
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Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.