5 Questions That Can Save You From Disaster

I admit it. The fault was entirely my own. I had let myself get comfortable and now I was short on time, resources, energy, and just about everything needed to make a successful operation. And I could have prevented it.


The 101st Airborne Division repositions in Bastogne during The Battle of the Bulge, December 1944.

At the time, I was a company commander in Baghdad and the last few days had shown a sharp increase in enemy attacks. The entire brigade area of operations was increasing in intensity and commanders were making decisions about how to react.

My battalion commander informed me that there was some discussion about shifting a portion of my company to another combat outpost, but that nothing had been decided. He said that during the morning’s update, the brigade commander had asked about the feasibility of moving my assets, but then tabled it for another discussion. “I don’t think he wants to move you. Don’t worry about it for now,” my commander relayed quickly as he rolled out to assess the fight.

So, I didn’t…and that was my mistake. I had been up for nearly 24 hours and my fatigued inner monologue told me that the current situation wouldn’t change, so there was nothing for me to do.


As one might expect in a post about hard-learned lessons, the situation changed. My commander sent me an email in the middle of the next morning’s update: “Change of plans. Brigade Commander wants you to move north. He’s talking 12 hours from now. Better get to work.

I had lost 8 hours of useable planning and prep time because I failed to anticipate that I’d be told to move. The battlefield conditions had pointed to this course of action as a smart decision, and I’d even received an informal warning about the possibility…but I didn’t act. Consequently, I scrambled to inform the platoon leaders, coordinate with battalion, and put together a hasty plan. Worse, the company’s Soldiers had to break their backs to make the directed movement timeline.

Preventing Disaster

How have you been caught off guard about something you could have anticipated? What indicators were present that should have informed you changes were coming?

For me, the fact that my brigade commander even mentioned the move should have been enough to set things in motion. He had a habit of floating ideas to commanders and staff, letting them marinate, then making a decision later on. Right then, I could have gotten the jump on things by warning my own people about the possibility, then identifying what would have to happen if we did get the call.

There’s absolutely no reason for us to assume…that the Germans are mounting a major offensive. The weather is awful and their supplies are low. The Germans haven’t mounted a winter attack since Frederick the Great.

Therefore I believe that’s exactly what they’re going to do. I want you to start making contingency plans for pulling out of our eastward attack, changing directions 90 degrees, and moving up to Luxembourg. …Don’t look so stunned, gentlemen.” (from Patton, 1970)

I realize now that it doesn’t take much to anticipate big moments like I experienced. A few moments of reflection can cue you in to the key indicators. And asking hard questions will force you and your team to acknowledge the situation you face.

5 Questions

Here are 5 questions that I ask when I’m in the middle of something important, or when I feel like I’m getting too comfortable with the situation:

  • What am I assuming that might not be true or may change later?
  • What other courses of action could emerge?
  • How much time would I have to react to a new course of action?
  • What assets would I need in place to adequately respond?
  • Who else needs to ask and answer these questions?

I’ve found that these questions force me to open my mind about what else is out there that could affect me and those I’m leading. They make me to step outside my own perspective and evaluate the situation from the decision makers’ point of view, as well as those in my sphere of influence who affect change. This short process serves as a brainstorming session to identify vulnerabilities, make the unknown known, and prepare for or prevent disaster.

And finally, it’s key that the leader be the one to engage in this process. No one else has a better understanding of the scope of issues facing a unit or team, nor can anyone else create the mental space from the minutia needed to sense all that is happening.

Questions for Leaders

  • Are you honest enough with yourself to actively seek out your vulnerabilities?
  • What personality traits/habits prevent you from acknowledging impending disaster?
  • Do you develop your team to imagine possibilities on their own? Or must they wait for your guidance?

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  • MPCM

    Great article – some really good points here. How often however, is the opposite true? I often am dealing with Be Prepared To tasks that never materialise. A few days analysing the tasks and organising to deal with it ends up being for nothing when the task is cancelled. A few of these back to back results in lots of activity but nothing achieved.

    • Reflecting on what could change from your current situation does not mean you have to do full preparation for every conceivable option. Quite often, merely keeping in mind that something could happen and avoiding actions that would make life more difficult if it does will go a long way towards dealing better with those events should they occur.

      If I’m told I may need to move in dozen hours, I might decide that instead of doing base maintenance today and checking up on my gear and restocking personal supplies tomorrow, I’ll reverse the two tasks. (Pardon me if this doesn’t make complete sense, as I’m not in the military, but I think you get the general idea.) It might make no difference at all in what order I do those tasks if we don’t move, but be very helpful to have done the former rather than the latter if we do.