Leadership Spotlight

Preparation for Crisis

A stock image of a police SWAT vest.

An old proverb says, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.”1 This saying is never truer than in the development of leadership for a crisis event, especially if the crisis entails a hostage taking, kidnapping, or violent barricaded subject. This type of on-scene crisis leadership was displayed in the manhunt and capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers.

After a violent confrontation with law enforcement the night before, Tsarnaev was located hiding in a boat behind a home in Watertown, Massachusetts. The initial contact by officers with the suspect was chaotic and potentially hazardous. However, after a quick assessment of various factors, the on-scene commander (OSC) decided to slow things down and began a controlled, methodical, and systematic approach to the capture.

Disciplined and skillful leadership is needed to slow down an extremely chaotic situation. The OSC needs to quickly assess and understand the numerous complexities of a violent hostage taking or suicidal barricaded subject and develop an appropriate course of action. It is not an easy job.

One method that may aid a critical incident leader is the well-thought-out Incident Assessment Checklist. The FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit (CNU) developed this checklist and has used it for numerous years. Further, it is currently taught to law enforcement executives from around the world attending the FBI National Academy.

The checklist allows the OSC to focus on certain critical decision-making elements of the incident, such as whether risks are increasing, decreasing, or staying the same, and develop an appropriate course of action. Critical incident leaders face many unique, complex, and fluctuating situations, and no one checklist can guarantee the desired result.

In developing its Incident Assessment Checklist, CNU relied on subject-matter experts who had managed and experienced numerous hostage takings and violent barricades. Unit members identified the essential elements that need to be assessed when confronting subjects. Similarly, in The Checklist Manifesto, the author suggests the checklist be developed with input from a wide range of stakeholders, subject-matter experts, and practitioners who will treat it as a living document, allowing modifications to occur as needed.2

Certainly, the time for developing a checklist is not during a crisis, but well beforehand. This allows critical incident leaders to use the checklist to empower and enhance their decision-making abilities in these intense, stressful events.

Download Dalfonzo checklist-revised.docx — 13 KB

Vince A. Dalfonzo, an instructor in the Leadership Programs and Instruction Unit at the FBI Academy and retired supervisory special agent, prepared this Leadership Spotlight. He can be reached at vadalfonzo@fbi.gov.


Often attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, this proverb is believed to have an African origin, although there is no record of its beginning. See “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor,” The Idioms, accessed June 22, 2020, https://www.theidioms.com/a-smooth-sea-never-made-a-skilled-sailor/.
2 Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto (New York, NY: Picador, 2011).