No one expects a train derailment, but it happens. The wheels leave the track and everyone on board feels the shaking, and sometimes become casualties. Derailment isn’t limited to trains, however. Every organization has either gone through, is going through, or will go through a crisis time—a time when the wheels either leave the track, or come off completely.

I’d like to share some important principles for dealing with those times, whether it involves the whole organization, the leadership team, or an individual team member. The leader is on high alert. Something needs to be done and said—and right away. In a medical context, there is a “golden hour”—a time when the actions of responders result in the greatest chance of recovery. Any delay can be disastrous.

The leader also has a golden hour, which is not necessarily measured in minutes or seconds, but is crucial to dealing with the crisis. Then, learned methods are put into action. What’s the action plan?

First, be calm. Take a deep breath, gather the facts, and separate the granite from the gossip. What is the crisis? Who is involved? What is the immediate and long term impact? Analyze the problem thoroughly and form the action steps carefully.

Second, be in command. Leadership is about leading in rough seas or smooth. Rough seas demand the captain to take charge. That’s you. Be authoritative. Let your team know that you are taking the necessary steps—and then take them.

Third, be kind. When a tiger is on the loose, making it angry is not going to make it more agreeable. Your approach to the crisis will be character-revealing. Storming into the situation will just make more waves. Tough love knows when to line it up or lay it on the line. First, line it up with a confidential meeting. Then put out the “appetizer” of kindness. A soothed tiger is easier to approach.

Fourth, be considerate. What are the mitigating factors? Leadership in a crisis is determining the philosophical “bookends”—the present, in between the past and the future. Your immediate job is detective work. Find out what brought the person, team, or organization to this point. What was the fuse? Who lit it? How can it be extinguished?

Fifth, be constructive. You have an opportunity to make a person, team, or organization better positioned for the future. Think about the salvage before the demolition. The persons involved are on the ledge of bitterness or “better-ness.”

Sixth, be collaborative. Do you need a “solutions team?” Who can be utilized to bring some sense to the nonsense? What outsourcing could be of help? Then, from the platform of confidentiality and trust, form the crisis intervention team.

Seven, be cautious. This is a litigious age. Make sure you consider the legal and ethical consequences of your proposed actions. How will you protect the rights of persons involved and still bring them to “organizational justice?”

Management consultant, Andy Gilman, said, “The secret of crisis management is not good vs. bad, it’s preventing the bad from getting worse.”

Whether or not you can get the train back on the track will depend on the circumstances. But, at least give it a try; if it doesn’t work, you can always salvage the wheels.

–Stan Toler