First followers

Last week my husband and I went to a nearby diner for lunch, and afterwards we decided to walk around the shopping center it’s in to see what’s still in business and what isn’t and generally enjoy the day. The far side of the shopping center is on a busy and awful intersection, one I avoid whenever possible, so when we got there we turned around to head back.

We’d no sooner looked away from the intersection than we heard a loud WHOOMP! followed by a hissing. We’d both reacted to the bang – I thought a construction crane had dropped something, my husband thought it was a shotgun blast – but the hissing told us “airbags.” We whipped around to see two smashed up cars drifting out of the middle of the intersection towards our side of the street.

We were maybe 100 feet away – six small storefronts, anyway – and there were several people between us and the crash, but they were just looking at it, not moving. I asked, “Do you think they’re unconscious?” (meaning the drivers) and then “Why isn’t anyone going to help?” My husband nodded – the cars were clearly not under control – and we jogged over, getting there just as the front car came to a rest against the curb and the back car came to a rest against it. We could see the driver in front and she was definitely unconscious (or worse). My husband took that car and I headed for the car in the back.

That driver was just opening her door and trying to get out, but she’d definitely been knocked loopy. She was shaking and not able to process everything that was happening. I tried to get her to stay put, but she was not having it, so I supported her in standing up, checking her over for injuries. I was talking with her to check her mental state, and she kept trying to find her phone.

My phone was in my hand as I’d started unlocking it to call 911 as we ran, but when I saw other bystanders with phones I assumed they were calling, so I told her “It’s OK, we’re calling 911,” but she shook her head and said “I need to call my wife – I have to call my wife.”

Someone else had come up to help by then, and she and I got this driver to sit down on the curb before she fell over. I gave her my phone so she could call her wife, and yelled to my husband about 911 as I headed back to her car. He was still mostly in the other car and replied “I haven’t” so I caught the eye of a young woman who had her phone in her hand and looked like she wanted to help and asked her to call 911. She nodded and did it right away.

Back at the car, I reached in to set the emergency brake and turn off the engine, and in clearing the airbags away I saw the corner of a child seat. I freaked out a little and tore through the airbags to it, even though I assumed that if the driver had had a kid in the car with her, that would have been the first and only thing she was thinking about. Thankfully there was no kid, but my adrenaline was going now.

I looked over to see that helpers were with my driver and comforting her and went to check in with my husband. That driver had come to – she was pretty banged up and had a broken nose and a concussion, but, like the other driver, wanted the hell out of her car. My husband had it under control, so I surveyed the 10 or so people watching and noticed that intersection traffic was backing up. I asked a couple people to turn the hazard lights on on the cars that had stopped at the crash and then went into the street to direct traffic.

A patrol car on his normal route showed up at that point and pulled over, so, satisfied that traffic was now flowing around the crash or turning around, I went to brief him. My husband had left his driver with another couple helpers and was talking in Spanglish with a guy who’d seen the whole thing from the parking lot, so between the 3 of us we brought the cop up to speed and turned the scene over to him. I got my phone back and we decided our part was done.

As we started heading back to our car, one of the helpers called out “Thank you! And great job!” And that was the weirdest part for me.

Is this a metaphor?

Well, of course it is. I mean, yes, it happened just like I have written it (or as close as I can remember), but the way my brain works anything and everything can be a metaphor. This even was a clearly bounded example of human behavior in an unexpected situation, so let’s pull it apart and look at it for lessons.

Your world can change in an instant, and you might not have any say in that…but you can still be prepared. My husband and I have both gone through first-responder training multiple times ahead of overseas tours (although not for like 10 years now). As a caregiver for my mother I got in the habit of keeping my CPR certs up to date. It’s not much, but it was enough that we probably managed about 80% of what we should have done. While we spent our drive home going over all the stuff we SHOULD have done, but the important thing is that we knew there were ways we could help, so it wasn’t a hard decision to start helping.

That’s the OODA Loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It’s what you need to do fast in a chaotic situation. Get off the X, stop the bleeding, establish order, do what you can to move the situation to “complex,” “complicated,” or ideally “obvious.”

The other people near the accident didn’t have the training or the experience to move through their OODA Loops quickly. They observed, but got hung up in “orient” or “decide.” Some of them didn’t orient themselves as potential helpers, maybe for language barriers, maybe because they’d seen lots of accidents and someone else always helped. Others couldn’t decide whether they should act or not – what should they do? What if they made things worse?

Seeing us act helped those folks because they could orient on us, decide to follow our lead, and take on tasks that they knew how to do. Most people already know how to comfort someone or call 911.

And people want to help.

But often people need permission to start helping. We are social animals and we look to each other for cues to see if we should act or not.

There’s a famous experiment in which people are asked to fill out a questionnaire. Sometimes the person is alone in a room, other times three people are in the room working on the questionnaires. The experimenters begin pumping smoke into the room. The people who are by themselves tend to react pretty quickly once they smell the smoke, leaving the room to find help or alert people to a possible fire. The people in small groups, however, react much more slowly as they each look to the others to see if everyone’s smelling the smoke, and if anyone’s doing anything. In the real world this behavior has led to death more than once.


If you find yourself in a situation where things have gone wrong and are likely to keep going wrong and people need help (like, oh, say, 2020), the first thing to do is to notice what you are doing. Are you acting or hesitating? Are you looking to others? I wanted to act right away, and by myself I might have, but since I was with my husband I checked in with him first. He would act right away on his own, but with me there he waited until I signaled concern.

If you need to decide whether to act, ask yourself “If this is a real emergency and I don’t act, what happens?” Then ask yourself “If this is not a real emergency and I take action, what happens?” Then compare those two answers. In almost every case, lack of action in a real emergency means death, yours or others, but the cost of action in a non-emergency depends on the action. At worst it’s a little effort and maybe a little embarrassment. For us, the cost of running over to check on unconscious drivers who turned out to be fine was negligible…but what if there had been a baby in the car seat, hurt and smothered under air bags and no one had gone to help? What if one of the drivers was bleeding out?

Even if you don’t feel 100% competent, you are better than nothing and you are who is there.

If you find yourself leading the action, don’t hesitate to ask for help. People want to help, they are probably just unsure what to do or what needs to be done. Chaotic situations respond well to command-and-control to avoid duplicate efforts and to avoid leaving stuff out, so you may find yourself shifting quickly from hands-on doing to conducting and coordinating as people come to help.

Of course, knowing what action to take is key, so if you aren’t sure about that, be the First Follower.

Follow First

This job is at least as important as leading. By choosing to join in the leader’s action, you signal to the rest of the group that it’s OK. You may even shift their calculus, making it more socially expensive to remain passive than to join in.

The leader needs you. Especially in a “chaotic” situation (and I’m using these terms in accordance with the Cynefin Framework) a leader can’t handle everything on her own. The woman who came up to help me with the driver made it possible to secure the driver, secure the car, check for a baby, and generally made the whole thing work.

Here’s a video that provides a much more fun and lighthearted look at the power of the First Follower:

Crisis Leadership

No one designated my husband and myself as “Official Car Crash Responders for July 2020” but there we were. We aren’t the only people who’ve suddenly found ourselves in a crisis leadership position this year; we were just lucky enough to have our wrap up in under an hour, move from “chaotic” to “obvious” when the EMTs arrived, and not involve death. Still, the same skill sets apply to anyone who is now a leader or first follower.

Empathy – you need cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy. Logically take the perspective of the other person, feel physically along with them, and take action on their behalf. I always overdo the emotional part; much like I had a non-helpful adrenaline dump when I thought their might be a hurt child, I tend to take on too much of the spiking emotions. A little is all you need so that you can understand what’s going on and how to work with people. You need to remain functional, but take their emotional state into account.

Communication – communicate clearly and briefly, with a respectful, firm tone. Share just the exact things they need to know. Later, when you’ve stopped the bleeding, shift your crisis communication to be more robust and abundant; there’s no such thing as overcommunicating in an uncertain situation. I’ve been consulting with many folks going back to work and very few got enough or the right communications from their employers while they were out, or even now that they are in.

Get more knowledgeable – Just getting started and calming your mind can help, but if you are willing and interested, why not take first aid or CPR training? Pack a good first aid kit in your car (ours was a mile away and neither driver in the crash had one). Get familiar with your neighborhood and the area you frequent so you know what’s where, how to get around, and who to ask for help. Learn another language.

You don’t rise to the level of your training, you sink to it. The better you train, the higher that level will be, but anything is better than nothing and if you get started then first followers will come help.


For me, at the end of the day, I will kick myself harder for not trying to help than I will for not having my first aid kit or forgetting to ask the driver’s name. What matters is that those drivers had people there to help them. You know yourself best – what matters to you?

In this, like in many things, visualization helps. Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst and don’t assume other people will take care of everything. Spend some time visualizing what you’ll do in an emergency, whether it’s a home fire or needing to get a family member to the ER. That visualization gives you a leg up on your OODA Loop in the event.

Mostly, just know that you have far more agency than you might think.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.