by Gay Gaddis | Published by Fortune


[ARTICLE] This past August, I learned an invaluable lesson in leadership that changed my life forever. Invited by the U.S. Department of Defense through the Senior Leader Engagement Program — an intensive program meant to increase public understanding of national defense — I was one of four women to spend an entire week immersed in all branches of our military.

We started each morning at 4:15 and spent action-packed days experiencing the discipline, leadership, commitment and, most importantly, strategic planning of our country’s defenders. We were transported on C-17 and KC-130 cargo aircraft, and a CV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft. We explored submarines and piloted Coast Guard cutters. We shot guns with the rangers and were privileged to observe a ceremony where recruits at Parris Island earned their Eagle, Globe and Anchor for the first time. The Eagle, Globe and Anchor ceremony was one of the most patriotic and emotional events I have ever witnessed. It was awe-inspiring to see those young recruits become Marines.

My biggest takeaway from my week with the U.S. military was just how important it is to be prepared for the worst-case scenario in any planning effort. That mindset is incredibly relevant to those of us in leadership positions. I’m not just talking about a crisis plan. I’m talking about chaos. Chaos will occur. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when.”

In the military, they plan for both the most likely eventuality and the most dangerous. It takes a healthy amount of experience and understanding to be able to effectively plan and be prepared for chaos. At some point, you need to be able to ask yourself, “Do I know how to identify the signposts on the road to catastrophic failure?” If you don’t know how to identify your potential problems, you can’t hedge against their consequences. In my business, chaos can range anywhere from patent infringements to client changes to power outages. We know that we cannot control all circumstances, but we must be prepared, ready and able to act quickly when we encounter the unexpected.

The question you must ask yourself is the following: Do I and does my company have the hip pocket plan in place for when all hell breaks loose? And, once the plan is developed, have I communicated it clearly to all who must take action? As learned from our military, think through these scenarios, clearly define everyone’s role and make sure there is a hierarchy for following through to the lowest level of implementation. That is ultimately called being prepared, and it can make or break your company.