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This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

Are you familiar with the expression, 'when the student is ready; the teacher appears?' I was recently schooled in a lesson on situational awareness by a very unlikely duo – my daughter and a temperamental weed whacker.

Situational awareness is defined as: the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission. I would also add: the ability to accurately predict what will happen.

It is the skill of making good decisions under pressure by synthesizing multiple data points. It is a tremendously beneficial skill for all leaders; it is part art and part science. Although it is a challenging skill to master, if we are able to embrace some of the principles, our decision making skills would improve and our stress levels would decrease.

The Weed Whacker Doctrine

Recently, my husband and I were doing yard work in preparation for a family gathering and in a race against time due to a forecast thunderstorm. As we prepared to trim the edges of the yard with a weed whacker, we could not get it working. In our efforts to get it started, our 'collaborative' discussion became more heated and things were escalating quickly. My daughter, intrigued by the raised voices and colourful language, came to the garage to see what was happening. Although not an authority on weed whackers, she simply suggested we turn the weed whacker upside down to see if the other end held the solution to our problem. At first blush it seemed absurd but we did it anyway. To our amazement, the small primer button was revealed and we were back in business.

This bizarre example illustrates many of the foundational elements of situational awareness – the mission, information gathering and listening skills all must come together. Often this skill is discussed from a military perspective, but I think it has applicability and benefits to routine business and leadership scenarios.

Time is on our side

When faced with a time-sensitive decision with sufficiently high stakes, it is natural to be caught up in the drama of the moment. As emotions heighten, communication has a tendency to shut down. Without good situational awareness, leaders are more susceptible to taking actions that are not necessarily the best choices. Breathe; take a step back – in most cases these are not mission critical decisions – you do have a few minutes to pause and think. Don't be afraid to use it. Despite the pressure you feel, it's usually not the Olympics – the score isn't in milliseconds – take a moment and trust yourself to think.

Ask the right questions

When you really think about the information you need, you must be ready to ask questions in such a way as to tease out that information. It means tailoring communication to your audience and asking questions in the right way. Sometimes you will want quick yes/no answers; sometimes you'll want to draw out explanations – either way, asking your team the questions thoughtfully will increase the chances of getting the information you really need. Experience plays a role here, but regardless of your tenure, this skill demands humility and grace. Leaders must also be vulnerable and courageous enough to ask obvious questions in a new way – to get new answers.

Stand back and listen

As a leader in a tough spot, it is really hard to cultivate an environment of open, listening and collaboration in a pressure-cooked moment. Leaders lead. But the best leaders know when to step back and put their attention and focus on their team. This is one of the best ways I have learned to solicit ideas that are diverse; meaning they are ideas I could never have come up with on my own. In my example, I don't think my husband and I would have ever thought to turn the weed whacker upside down. We would have been driving (and arguing) to the hardware store. On the flip side, my daughter wouldn't have been forthcoming with her suggestion if she had been met by a blustering parent. Luckily, we both had the wherewithal in that moment to set the right environment to allow her ideas to come forward.

Although most of the business decisions we make won't have the life or death stakes situational awareness was developed for, the essential elements can help all of us make better decisions – in the boardroom and in the yard.

Shirlee Sharkey (@ShirleeSharkey) is president and CEO of Saint Elizabeth, a national health care provider and social innovator.