I read an article by Erin Pavlina about taking command and cultivating leadership, in which we recounts an event in which she took control of a situation despite her misgivings about taking point.

I was reminded of a Mexican restaurant my wife and I ate at some years back, just a little while after September 11th. It had a full wall of windows facing a fairly busy road — think Mexican lunch diner, with the neon paint on the windows that says “2-4-1 Margaritas!” So, we’re sitting there in a booth next to a window when a bomb went off.

The Bomb

One moment calm, the next an enormous sound shook the building, making the plates and light fixtures shutter; a flash of bright light, all the electric lights popped and went dark, and everyone in that restaurant jumped from their seats to run or perhaps just to see where the blast had come from. It occurred to me that our sleepy Florida city wasn’t a likely target, but it was on the east coast and probably easier to hit than a major center like New York.

The building seemed in tact, and soon the attention of the dozens of patrons was focused out the window, at an SUV which the driver had accordioned against a concrete power pole. At the top of the pole, which was big enough to be a hub in that commercial corridor, was an over sized power transformer.

It wasn’t a bomb at all. A man had become distracted, glanced down at his cell phone for a moment while speeding down this major road, and ended up swerving into the pole at 40 miles per hour. The crash had triggered the huge transformer at the top to blow, causing a second major blast and a very bright flash, not unlike a bomb.

Pete the bystander


So there I was, surrounded by dozens of onlookers, gawking at a smashed SUV. I froze. After an interminable moment, a man closer to the door unfroze and rushed outside and across the street. He arrived near the truck in time to help another passer by help the driver, uninjured out of the driver’s side window.

The moment that man moved, I knew it. In a psychology class I learned about the bystander effect. People in a group, when faced with an unusual or stressful situation, will look to each other for a signal of how to act. The problem is that in that unusual situation, no one knows how to act, so everyone freezes, while men in smashed SUVs suffer alone in the cab of their mangled vehicle.

I remembered from class, judging all those hypothetical people who stood around doing nothing when people were in trouble and needed help. I would never be such a sheep.

It turns out that after your restaurant has been hit by a bomb, and a man is in trouble, it’s not so easy to judge, and I, in fact, did act like a sheep. I was the “bystander” of the “bystander effect.”

As soon as that man opened the door to run across the street, I knew it, and I was ashamed for being so damn human.

Pete the Decisive

Right then and there, I steeled myself. I told myself and my wife: next time something happens, I’m going to be that man, first out the door to help. I won’t look to other people in an emergency, I will do what needs to be done, and I’ll break the spell of the bystander by directing those around me.

Sure enough, some time later I was sitting in a speech class, listening to a lecture with about 25 other college students. From the back of the room comes a crack, then a thud. I look back from the front, and I see the quiet guy from the back of the room, Don, on the ground having a seizure with blood gushing from his head.

I didn’t hesitate.

Before I knew what was happening, I rushed back past the other students, who were gawking. I cleared the area around him of desks and debris he could hurt himself on, and found the strap of his backpack to shove in his mouth so he didn’t bite his tongue off. Then, I looked at the first person to my right, a brunette girl, perhaps 19 years old, pointed at her, and in a clear, commanding tone of voice asked if she had a phone. I had to ask twice because she was mesmerized, but she did have a phone. You call 911, right now. I did the same thing to the surfer guy standing next to her. I knew that asking “the crowd” to call 911 would not work because of the bystander effect, so I told a specific person what to do, and I knew that person was dazed, so I told two people instead of just one.

By the time I’d gotten people making calls, Don had come to. I told him in a calm voice that he’d just had a seizure, and not to move too much. I hadn’t moved him in case the fall had injured his neck, so I asked him if he could roll over on his back. He could, so it looked like he was going to be alright. I told him he was bleeding, but not too much, so not to worry, and that paramedics were on their way. Since he was lucid, we talked for a couple minutes about his history of seizures (he had none), and about the fact that he hadn’t eaten anything that day.

The campus paramedics arrived in short order, and I moved out of the way, my role complete

Ice Sculptures

ice sculpture

While all of this was going on, the other 24 people in the class, including the professor, stood frozen like deer in the headlights of that man’s SUV; like I had stood frozen, just a few months before.

It wasn’t their fault. Normally, looking to others is a great way to figure out how to act–at a house party, for example–but in these circumstances, that heuristic fails. So steel your mind: in an emergency no one has any idea what to do, so you need to show them by acting. If you want to organize those lookers on to help, then you need to give them clear instructions individually, otherwise the same effect that froze them in place to begin with, will hamper your efforts.

I don’t judge people for falling victim to themselves anymore, I just learned to short circuit the problem.