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Situational Awareness and Leadership for Personal and Organizational Safety with Brian Searcy
The world is not a safe place today. The threats we face are growing. These threats include Sexual Harassment, Suicide, Human Trafficking, Cyber, Assault, Bullying, and Active Shooter. But this isn’t the entire list. In addition, all of these problems have been getting worse, not better. “Traditional Training” following Einstein’s definition of Insanity is not working. When you and your organization learn Situational Awareness, you provide your teams with the skills to prevent these threats from happening, and you also empower two other critical capabilities. The first is to identify Mental Health concerns within your team with Situational Awareness. And finally, and most important to you as leaders, with Situational Awareness you transition Leadership into a verb by identifying learning opportunities to effectively communicate your culture and empower them to exercise the behaviors that will make your organization safer. Finally, when you and your team members learn these skills, you do not just use them at work. These skills carry over into every part of your life, making your schools, homes, and communities safer.
Brian Searcy is the President of The Paratus Group. His vision is to “Redefine How Safety is Learned” to make Schools, Churches, the Workplace, and our communities as safe as possible. His unique experience and expertise, with the help of The Paratus Group Team, have revolutionized how situational awareness is trained and learned allowing the opportunity for every single member of our communities, the true first responders, to be “Prepared to Survive”.
Following a decorated senior leadership career in the USAF as a commander and combat veteran, Brian transitioned into executive roles as a business entrepreneur, writer, publisher, and public speaker. He co-founded The Paratus Group with the objective of using his decades-tested and proven leadership and training experience to solve a need for relevant, effective, trustworthy principles, training methodologies, and programs to allow for the learning of situational awareness. The situational awareness mindset and behaviors that are developed allows critical decisions to be made in the complex dynamics of the home, schools, the workplace, and our communities to make us all safer.
Read the Interview Transcript
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, everyone. It’s Hugh Ballou with The Nonprofit Exchange. It’s a place where I get to interview some amazing people about their experience, their wisdom, all the things they’ve done. Maybe they have learned from some things they didn’t do the way they thought it ought to come out.
What do we need to learn to raise the bar on our own performance? Transformational leadership was developed in the ‘80s by Burns and Bass, two writers who looked at the military as a model for leadership. It’s what we teach at SynerVision. It’s what a conductor uses to build strong, amazing cultures that respond to the nuance of a leader. In culture, in combat, when a play is being performed on stage, a leader cannot micro-manage the team. They have to be rehearsed and ready to go.
We’re talking about safeguards, things we normally don’t think about in our day-to-day work. My guest today is a new friend, Brian Searcy. Brian, welcome. Tell people a little bit about you and your background.
Brian Searcy: Thank you. I always love to talk about situational awareness and how it helps with safety, mental health, and leadership. I’m a retired Air Force colonel. I did 23 years in the Air Force. AWACS navigator, JSTARS navigator, two tours at the Pentagon, and then I commanded at the squadron, the group, and the wing level. My final assignment was the wing the JSTARS had at the Robins Air Force base.
Since then, I have done a number of things. I have started a couple businesses. I helped my wife build her business. About four years ago, I was asked to take my expertise and dive in to try and solve the problem of active shooters and school shootings. That is how I got into the safety piece. During that time, I built a program to hopefully prevent active shooting events from happening using micro e-learning.
By the end of 2019, I realized that active shooting, while catastrophic, is only one of a dozen threats that we come in contact with in our homes, communities, schools, and businesses every day. Let’s work on preventing them. They are all getting worse instead of better. Let’s proactively put a program in place so that we can turn those numbers around and change the trajectory.
Hugh: You said that you’re retired. How come you are doing this work? What’s your passion?
Brian: I retired from the Air Force. My wife knows me better than anyone else. She says what I’m doing today is because I need to have a mission in life. She is absolutely right. That is why I entered the Air Force, because I needed to have a mission. She also knows that “retire” retire is not something I am going to ever be able to do, especially with what I’m involved in now.
I am extremely passionate about what’s going on in our country. I am very passionate to solve root problems and not deal with symptoms. I think a lot of problems going on in our society come from a lack of situational awareness and a lack of well-developed personal skills. We have tied those all together into our program so we can help people take responsibility for their own safety, the safety of our communities, improve people’s mental health, and empower people to be great parents.
Hugh: Wow. That is a lot of stuff to talk about. What are some of the blind spots? Our audience is nonprofit leaders and clergy. We think everything is going to be happy-go-lucky. Everything will be fine. We tend to ignore some warning signs, some red flags. What are some of the blind spots that leaders have, especially in this sector? We think everybody is a good person. They are all going to be in line for the cause. That’s not always true, is it?
Brian: No, it’s not always true. Situational awareness is actually a God-given gift. We all have it. That is the skill that God gave us to be able to manage our fight or flight responses. Situational awareness gives us the ability to know what normal is and set up our parameters of the levels we will trust people, how we will look at people’s behaviors and their changes in behaviors that can be indicators of things that could be going on in their lives. It also empowers leadership. Anyone who is a parent or leader of an organization, if you don’t have situational awareness and are not looking for those learning opportunities to turn leadership philosophies into a verb, you won’t be successful.
But you’re right. Hope is not a strategy today. I love a quote from Bruce Lee. He was asked one time, “Why do you spend so much time studying martial arts and to be a warrior?” He said, “I would much rather be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war.” He strives for peace, but he prepares for whatever event he would potentially have to deal with. That’s what we’re talking about with situational awareness. The goal is to learn this skill so that you can prevent things from happening. You learn how to look for those indicators, and you know how to take action to prevent it from happening or remove yourself from being a victim.
Ultimately, we never want to be in a situation where we have to deal with a fight-or-flight response. But if you have planned for it, the odds of you being successful when dealing with it—and it’s not just an active shooter. It could be a whole host of other things that we talk about—you’re much more likely to be successful.
Hugh: There are a number of ways people invade our privacy and take advantage of us. We don’t even put safeguards for our finances in the nonprofit. There are certain processes and procedures for the everyday things like that. The security for our Wi-Fi and our email and payroll systems. We don’t even think it’s crucial. What are some of the major threats that we’re facing today? What ways do we need to be attentive to the people who can hurt us?
Brian: It’s always important to do those hardening things. Whether you are trying to protect your organization from cyber, keep your data secure so that someone who actually tries to intrude on your system from a physical perspective can’t do it, to protect your buildings, hardening and technology is extremely important.
But what we see oftentimes is it’s not that direct, hard intrusion where they are successful. Where they are successful is through the non-direct. They send a text or email. It’s a phishing campaign, and someone clicks on something that gives the predator access to your system. According to the FBI, almost 40% of every successful cyberattack is done just in that way. With a little bit of situational awareness training and an understanding of what these threats are, and some critical thinking, we all have the ability not to allow that to happen.
I got a text just the other day from AT&T that said, “Thank you for just paying the bill. Now click on this link for your free gift.” I can only imagine how many people actually do that today, but that’s just a phishing attack. Someone is coming at me to get me to click on that link so that they have access to my phone, which then by default they might have access to my email passwords, my bank passwords, those type of things. Situational awareness gives us the ability to identify those types of things.
Situational awareness also gives us the ability to pay attention to the behaviors, especially of our kids, of what’s going on in the cyber realm. Cyber is obviously a huge thing that’s going on out there.
Hugh: I’ve learned that when PayPal sends me something about my account, and they say, “Hey, customer,” I know right there it’s not for me. I check the email address. It has nothing to do with PayPal. What are some other ways we can be alert to those phishing scams?
Brian: You just listed a couple very good ones. Here is the sad thing in the reality of what is going on in our current society. Less than one in seven people actually have situational awareness. Many times, somebody may get an email like the one you said from PayPal. They have in their mind that it doesn’t sound right. Two weeks later, they will get the same email, but they are so busy on so many things that they are not even paying attention because they don’t have a situational awareness process, and they will click on that. That’s why these phishing attempts continually are coming in because they are waiting for us to be so worn down or preoccupied with something else that we’ll go ahead and click on it.
What you just identified is a great thing. Always look at is that email coming from a reliable place? Does the email make sense? When people are so preoccupied with what they’re doing, they don’t use critical thinking, which means they don’t go, “Why am I getting this email? It doesn’t make sense. I don’t have this account, or it’s closed, or I already paid the bill.” That’s why they’re continually doing it because they are hoping to get us when we are in that state of, “I just gotta get through this.” That’s why it’s so important to have the habits and behaviors so you do it all the time.
Hugh: Or they put some fear into you. “Act now to protect your account. This is urgent.” There is a scarcity or anxiety that maybe surpasses your logical thinking. Nobody told us, “We have to think logically.” What’s going on here? Did somebody change the rules?
Let’s go back a step. You’re using the term “situational awareness.” Is that an industry standard? Did you come up with it? Give us some context around that and define that please.
Brian: Situational awareness is a God-given gift that we all have. Ironically, it’s not really talked much about in the business area. Obviously, being from the military, situational awareness is extremely important. In the business community, you will hear the term “self-aware.” That is very important, but it is not situational awareness. It is a component of being situationally aware. Situational awareness is that hair on the back of the neck or a gut feeling, where when something shouldn’t be in your environment enters your environment. In order to understand that, you first have to know what’s normal in your environment. Since most people don’t pay attention to what is going on around them, they haven’t set that baseline. That’s why a lot of times they don’t get that hair on the back of the neck or that gut feeling.
Situational awareness is a process of identifying, assessing, and thinking about what you would do if something happens. You are preparing yourself through continuous planning. Our programs give the individual the opportunity for them to learn their own situational awareness. It’s different for everybody. We teach the 10 critical skills that you have to have to have situational awareness. We educate on the threats. Then you’re empowered to take responsibility for your own safety.
Two other things that situational awareness gives you is the ability to be more happy, because you’re less stressed, but also help your friends, neighbors, kids, spouse, by looking at how they are behaving and potentially helping their mental health. Also empowering that leadership piece that is so important.
Hugh: A number of points there. I get all kinds of amazing answers to questions when I ask nonprofit leaders. One like this I can imagine. I have gotten this kind of answer about another topic. “I’d rather not know about that because if I knew about it, I would just worry all the time.” Have you ever heard that? How would you answer that?
Brian: People have asked, “Don’t you get paranoid when you’re doing this?” Exactly the opposite happens. You go through the process that we teach. After about 90 days, it becomes a habit and behavior, so you do it automatically. You’re not even concerned about those types of things. Especially when you’re dealing with your kids, wouldn’t you rather know what the threats are and be aware of what those threats are? What are the indicators of them being possibly under threat, having predators coming at them? Wouldn’t you make that feel more secure and less stressed because you knew you could watch your kids and pay attention to what is going on and make sure they are safe and healthy?
We deal with it all the time. Everybody who comes out the other end of our program realizes that it doesn’t take any time. It’s something they do automatically. They have honed that gut feeling and those instincts. They are going about their lives. Now, when they are going about their lives, they are in a prepared state. They have thought about if something might happen today, what they might do, and they are prepared. That’s the big difference.
Hugh: You mentioned kids. A lot of our charities work with children. I understand that children are abducted when there is not a safety net around them, and people aren’t paying attention. Is that right?
Brian: When it comes to human trafficking and a number of other things going on today, the threat to our kids is being done via cyber. 88% of all human trafficking that is done in our country today, and actually around the world, is done over the internet. It’s not even making sure that they don’t get kidnapped in front of your house or in a park or something along those lines. It’s knowing what to look for in the behaviors of your kids, if a predator is going after them online. There are proven things that our kids do when that is going on. Things that parents can look for.
There is great training that nonprofits give on all these topics from suicide to human trafficking to sexual harassment, bullying. Great information. One of the reasons all of those statistics on all of these threats is going up is because we are not empowering people to have habits and behaviors to take that great information and use it.
There is something called the forgetting curve. If somebody gets information on a Monday, if you don’t reinforce that contact within a week, they will forget 95% of what you told them. They go on with their lives. They could have had great information on how to potentially identify someone who is being human trafficked. But if they don’t have a process to use that information, it doesn’t do any good.
Hugh: One of the duties and delights of a leader is to make sure everybody in the culture understands all about this. It’s front of mind. You’re right. We sometimes have people come in once a month or twice a month into our nonprofit, or once a week in our churches and synagogues, but there has been a lot that has happened in between. People forget. I want to go to those ten critical skills in a minute. What are some ways leaders can keep these skills in front of people and their minds?
Brian: When leaders have situational awareness, they look for those learning opportunities. They are consistently working on developing culture, working on the behaviors from a positive. We use the term “managing by metrics.” Managers that punish behavior that isn’t successful is the opposite of an active leader. If you don’t have situational awareness, you don’t see those opportunities. It is very difficult to be an effective leader and do that.
The goal should not be, as you pointed out, to micro-manage. The goal should be to be that leader that is consistently communicating. They are trusting their people. as they are trusting and developing their people, which should be a continuous, vigorous effort, that is where they see those things. They identify issues before they become problems by suggesting other ways to go forward. All too often today, because there is a leadership void in our country, people will wait until bad things happen and try to correct it then. That is too late. We have to use situational awareness early in learning opportunities.
Hugh: We tend to do the same things over and over again. I see Albert is looking over your shoulder there. That famous quote, the definition of insanity.
Let’s go to these 10 critical skills. What are they?
Brian: I’ll try to go through them without forgetting any. The first one is are you self-aware? There is three parts. What’s going on around you? What are you capable of doing? Do your words and actions have impact?
We talked about how you have to be an active listener. Most people today are not active listeners.
You need to know how to communicate. You need to be decisive. You need to have learning agility. You need to know how to think critically. You need to have humility and empathy.
Hugh: Wow. That’s quite a list. Your website is Paratus.Group.
Hugh: What is the origin of that name? What will people find when they go there?
Brian: “Paratus” is Latin for “prepare.” With all our programs, that’s what we’re talking about. Our programs are to prepare you for the real world. The Paratus Group does active shooter training. We help companies and organizations develop plans and procedures. The core purpose, the core mission is to teach situational awareness. I have learned over the last four years that you can have great hardware and training plans, but if you are not continuously planning, and if you don’t have situational awareness to identify those indicators of something bad happening, you won’t be successful. The goal is to prevent it from happening. You want as far left of bang as possible to see the bad things before they happen so you can prevent them. The foundation of all the programs at The Paratus Group is the development of situational awareness.
Then we have two different types of customers. We have the schools, churches, and businesses. We co-create a program with them. Then we have programs that directly go into the home for parents, high school students, college students, and anybody that potentially wants to learn how to defend their home and make sure that their home is a safe place.
Hugh: You would think our houses of worship would be a safe place, but there have been plenty of incidences where people have taken advantage of us having our guard down. It’s a cultural awareness, you say on your website. Is there a place on the website where people can find those 10 critical skills?
Brian: If they want to learn more about The Paratus Group, they can email firstname.lastname@example.org. When they do that, they will get a return. They just have to send their name and what they’re interested in a conversation about. We will send them a checklist of the 10 critical skills as well as a checklist on how to prepare your home so that your home is safe. They can go to the website and learn that, but we like to start the conversations at a personal level because the learning of situational awareness is not traditional training, and it is personal. Everybody develops it for themselves. That is the best way for them to get that information.
Hugh: Studying with you is certainly an option. Do you have articles, things people can read, to learn more about situational awareness?
Brian: I have a book coming out. It’s also going to be called Prepare for the Real World. It has chapters in it that outline a lot of the key formats and foundations of what situational awareness is. It’s a good foundation.
There is a book Left of Bang that people can read. It was written by a Marine major. It is a great book as well.
The bottom line is that situational awareness is not reading a book. It’s not taking a one- or two-hour class. It’s having a program in place where over a period of time, you get a chance to establish habits and behaviors and the proper mindset. You have heard of the 21/90 rule right, Hugh?
Hugh: The 21/90 rule?
Brian: The 21/90 rule, it takes 21 days to establish a new habit, and 90 days to establish a new behavior. That is why I have Einstein’s definition over my shoulder because for over 40 years, we, in business especially or in church safety, will have a two-hour class that somebody takes. Then we check the box. Now we think those people are going to take that information and be able to use it. You can only use it if you establish habits and behaviors. That is why a program like ours, over a period of time, we help everybody develop their own personal skill. That is how they become successful.
One other unique thing about our program is we will never tell anybody what to do. We feel if we do that, we are setting people up for failure. Hugh, if you and I were standing right next to each other, and we’re looking at a situation unfolding, you would agree that we have different backgrounds, different perspectives, and different training levels, right? We should not be expected to be able to respond in the same way. We need to figure out how we’re capable of doing it.
If my wife and I are in a situation, she’s 5’2” and 120 pounds, she is not going to take on a 6’ man in a fight. I might, but she is going to have to know what actions she can take to keep herself or our kids safe if something bad happens. That is absolutely okay that our responses are different. What’s important is we set ourselves up for success by knowing what we’re capable of doing.
Hugh: That’s so important. We have leaders that are in organizations of all types that don’t have this kind of embedded security in the culture. It’s hard to be fully effective as a leader. What does a leader do if they find themselves in that kind of situation? How do you build the energy around people wanting to learn more about it without being a fatalist or conspiracy theorist? You know the guy who said the other day, “I have to get some new conspiracy theories because all the old ones came true.” Besides that, how do we have that conversation with people without them thinking we’re bonkers?
Brian: The interesting thing is that leaders today really have no idea what is going on or history or associations that their employees are having. That is not said to be a bad thing. It’s just a fact of life.
I’m doing a course for a small business. We did a survey. We always do a survey at the beginning. There is 26 people in the program. 23/26 people had had either personally or one degree of separation one of the top six threats happen to them. We had people in that group that nobody knew this had ever happened to them who had been raped, been victims of a burglary, been assaulted, been bullied, or thought about committing suicide. 23/26 people, and nobody knew about it. That’s why our program is different than most other programs.
We don’t just talk about active shooters. When we just talk about active shooters, most people will say, “That will never happen to me.” When we talk about all of these threats, almost everybody has some personal experience with somebody. It’s either happened to them, somebody in their family, or a close friend. They realize that with situational awareness, they could be prepared to maybe prevent that from happening. Or they can identify some indicators that somebody might be thinking of committing suicide and get that person help.
That is why situational awareness is important. It’s not just to take responsibility to make ourselves safe, but it’s to help keep our businesses, our congregations, and our communities safe because we all work collectively to do that.
Hugh: If you take care of this, we can then do the business we are supposed to be doing of helping people.
Brian: That goes back to your question, don’t people get paranoid? Just the opposite happens. When you’re prepared, you’re much more likely not to have high levels of stress, high levels of anxiety, which means you are going to have higher job performance. Right now, according to SHRM, job productivity and performance, you can lose up to five hours a week because people are stressed and anxious. If we can get rid of that, job performance goes up. They are more happy in their work. You can deal with things like a pandemic because you learn how to manage risk. You learn how to do critical thinking instead of just listening to the news and thinking that is the truth all the time. That is why this skill is so critical that we all have it.
Hugh: SHRM is the Society of Human Resource Management?
Brian: Yes. Air Force. I am big at throwing out acronyms.
Hugh: It is an acronym world in the military. We’re running up to the end of our helpful interview. It’s something we just don’t think about, but we need to think about. It’s becoming more important every day. Even if you don’t read the news, there is problems going on in the world. Can you run through those 10 critical skills again? Before we end this interview, what thought or tip would you like to leave people with?
Brian: You need to be self-aware; an active listener; a critical thinker; a good communicator; decisive; have learning agility; have humility; have empathy. You need to be perceptive, and you need to understand perspective.
Hugh: Brian, those are basic leadership skills, aren’t they?
Brian: They are, but the sad thing is, Hugh, most people today have not developed those skills. Over 83% of the kids coming out of college today have not developed those skills. We have been for the last 20 years trying to rely on high schools and colleges to teach it. It’s not their job. Parents are supposed to teach it. Businesses are now having to do that.
I would get very frustrated when I would hear people my age complain about millennials and Generation Z. “They’re lazy. They don’t do X or Y.” My conversation with them is always, “Okay. Why do you think they do that?” “I don’t know. They’re just lazy.” I say, “Let’s not just look at the symptom of their behavior. Why do they behave that way?” it boils down to the fact that nobody has given them the necessary skills to do the things they need to do. Instead of complaining about it, let’s give them the necessary skills. That is why we make sure in all of our programs we teach those 10 critical skills.
Hugh: It’s us, the boomers, that set up that dynamic by not doing that. That’s a good observation. What do you want to leave people with, a thought, a challenge, a tip, today?
Brian: Situational awareness is the foundational tool. It helps us be safe. It helps with mental health. It makes us better parents and leaders. Hope is not a strategy. I talk about that all the time. Hoping that you’re going to be safe, hoping that you’re going to be happy, hoping that you’re going to be a good leader, you need the foundational tool that empowers all the other great training and other learning that we have so we can set ourselves, our businesses, schools, churches, and communities up for success.
Hugh: That’s great. I want to piggyback on something you said. The best musical ensembles, the best military groups, the best drama groups, the best sports teams rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. It’s not practice makes perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Rehearse the right thing.
Brian, you’ve inspired me to start looking at systems and think about my leadership skills that are out there to observe and protect people and keep people safe. Thank you for being our guest today and sharing such useful information today.
Brian: Hugh, it’s been awesome. Thank you for having me on.