Leadership Lessons from A TSA Decoy

I’ve made countless pre-dawn trips to airports. My early morning quiet ride differed because I wasn’t intending to travel anywhere, or even drop off a passenger. Today, I volunteered to serve as a TSA (Transportation Security Administration) decoy. And, because I’m a confessed leadership geek, I found some lessons for leaders in the experience.

Lesson One: Making Connections

If you need help, ask. People who are ready and willing to support will respond when they know you have a need. In the case of the volunteer program for TSA, I spied a notice on a social media platform. I’ve travelled a lot for both personal and professional reasons, so I understand the systems. I also love dogs. Did I mention I served as a decoy for the airport K9 unit? Yes, they had me at “dog.”

Many opportunities exist for leaders to “make the ask.” Put the word out via email, social platforms, conversations with colleagues, or other methods appropriate to the issue being conveyed. What’s important in making connections is to follow up with people who respond to the ask. Clarify your need and any expectations. Make it easy for mentors, volunteers, clients, or colleagues to help you when you need it.

Lesson Two: The Security Brief

When I arrived at the airport, I was briefed on security and process. K9 handlers and program coordinators walked through what I could expect and some specific safety topics. For leaders under other circumstances, consider how you begin meetings or engagements. At one company, we started meetings with a short brief using the acronym SPACER:

  • Safety/Security – What to do in the event of an emergency, how to assure security of people and data.
  • Purpose – What’s the purpose of the meeting (i.e., “we’re here to identify solutions for issue X”).
  • Agenda – Topics, timing.
  • Conduct/Commitment – Agreements on use of phones/devices, engagement, and feedback.
  • Expectations – The results we expect to walk away with today.
  • Responsibilities – Who handles what during the meeting; who is accountable for actions after the meeting.

The couple of minutes devoted to stage setting makes partnering and accomplishing objectives efficient and effective. Leaders investing time upfront create an environment where expectations are clear, relationships are supported, and collaboration feels more natural.

Lesson Three: Scenario Analysis / Skills Refresh

In creating a safe and secure experience for travelers in our nation’s airports, TSA considers all the scenarios that might indicate an unsafe condition exists. How might TSA agents, security personnel, and working dogs detect a threat and prevent a problem? What skills are required and how are these best maintained?

Leaders need to practice anticipating the unknown and known potential issues they and their teams might experience. In any organization, asking the “what if” questions makes responding more seamless when such events actually occur. Document the skills and processes required to successfully navigate situations that may arise and identify any skills that need to be obtained or refreshed. Having such skills, however, isn’t always enough. That’s where simulation comes in.

Lesson Four: Scenario Simulation

I’ll bet one of your earliest simulation experiences was your elementary school’s fire drill. The alarm sounds. Teachers instruct their class to form lines, talk the youngsters through how they’ll exit the building, and take the kids to a planned meet up location. The experience might include a “count” to ensure everyone exited safely and are present, a minimal debrief, and a release to return to the classroom. We practice to see what we need to add to our process. We practice to help children act in the event of a real emergency. We practice because, should a fire occur, lives are at stake.

While I won’t share the actual scenarios from serving as a K9 decoy, what I will tell you is that creating simulations in organizations is a worthwhile activity. In the community I live in, we have emergency scenario simulations. We’ve practiced for hurricanes and earthquakes. We held discussions on a pandemic before COVID ever hit. I’ve also taken FEMA’s CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training. The certification process includes a simulation of an event with volunteers who demonstrate injury or even a fatality for the CERT team to handle.

Leaders must think beyond the proverbial fire drill to consider issues a team may face and practice responding. Ingrain skills to assure these become second nature. A simple “table top” exercise for an hour can be a valuable practice. Just as important as the simulation, plan a discussion of take-aways from the experience.

Lesson Five: AARs and Rewards

I’ve written about the military practice of AARs (After Action Reviews) several times. As immediately as possible following a simulation or actual event, we ask questions regarding

  • Was the outcome what we anticipated?
  • What went as expected? What supported that result?
  • What occurred that surprised us or did not go as planned? How did this happen?
  • What lessons can we capture? What do we want to repeat or prevent in the future? How do we do this?

In the immediacy following each scenario, handlers did two things: first, K9s were instantly rewarded for successful outcomes. Second, handlers discussed how effectively the dog handled the simulation and what other scenarios might also challenge or improve the K9’s skills.

Leaders in all sizes of organizations can embrace the lesson of first thanking participants for any job well done and creating an environment where we can share and assess an unexpected outcome without shame or blame. AARs, in some format, are easy to implement. The key is to take time to review, reflect, capture any lessons-learned, and create new processes or tweak existing plans to improve future outcomes.

Today, I received my first “token.” Much like a challenge coin, this disc commemorates my experience. The image is of Harry, a recently retired K9. I plan to collect more of these with other TSA working dogs. If you have the opportunity to volunteer, I encourage you to do so. I had fun, and the experience is meaningful training to assure safety and security in our travel systems. And, if you’re interested in leadership, team development, or business process, reach out here.

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