Why a Leader Must Learn To Respond, Not React

The inspiration for this article is drawn from my 14 years experience as a British Army Officer. One of the key mottos for Leadership which I aspired to adhere to was to Respond, not React.

This may seem a contrivance, but in the context of having to make decisions which may have a real impact on the lives of my team, both on and off operations, the imperative to make the correct decision was paramount.

The ability to take stock of a situation, even for 30 seconds, allows us to make the best decision possible, particularly when the pressure is on to deliver direction quickly.

So, I hear you ask (maybe), what is the requirement? Aren’t reactions the same as responses? What is the difference? This article seeks to answer these questions, and highlight the benefits of learning to Respond, Not React.

Usefully, this advice is applicable across everything that faces us in our lives, at work and home, and may be off benefit to everyone, whether in a leadership role or not.

The Problem

The premise is that taking the time to consider how to deal with a given situation is easy in theory, but difficult in practice.
We are programmed to deal with the stimulus of the world efficiently. We have automatic responses to ensure that we can operate without being overwhelmed. This ranges from a reflex withdrawal when we feel pain, to an immediate response to a morning greeting.

This efficient system of responding to stimulus is a great asset, but can be our greatest liability. Sometimes we need to take a moment.
In the stress of a high intensity situation where rapid decision making is required, we may not be able to trust our instincts. A snap decision may be ill conceived, and not taking into account the broader impact of our reaction.

Similarly, a situation in which we are just carrying on with our day, and we are blind sided by an unexpected situation, we may not be in the best place to react appropriately. This could be a crisis which lands in our inbox, or somebody being rude to us on the train.
An immediate reaction in both these instances could result in the relatively minor incident escalating. We simply cannot always trust our gut.

Why is a Response better?

The idea is that disciplining ourselves to control an immediate reaction to a situation will yield significant benefits, particularly in crisis or interpersonal interactions.

Allowing a knee jerk reaction which is ill-conceived, with no consideration of the second or third order effects of the impact of it can be risky. Instead, withholding that reaction to respond in a considered, thought through way will ensure that the decisions we make are significantly more effective.

It doesn’t matter if the delay to replying to that irritating or challenging email is 2 minutes, or week. The power of ‘Responding’ rather than ‘Reacting’ will ensure that we are more intelligent in our decision making, considered in our communication, and effective in our actions.

Taking Control of the Situation

In the British Army, the standard example where this approach is applicable is when you are leading a patrol and are suddenly engaged by the enemy. We are trained to react by immediately returning fire - this was to control the situation, and was known as ‘winning the firefight’ and deal with the immediate threat.

Once this action is taken, Commanders are required to formulate a plan. Quickly.
The reality is that we would never have a full understanding of the enemy lay down, the routes to their positions, full understanding of their weapons or arcs of observation.

Given this, the stakes were always high. A bad decision could be fatal. We were trained to allow our teams to continue ‘winning the firefight’, and conduct an appreciation of the situation, known as ‘taking a condor moment’.

The imagery is pleasing, in that it suggests soaring above the problem and considering it from a broader perspective. It may be that you have only 10 seconds to do this, it could be half an hour. This affords the Leader a moment to consider the options: withdraw or assault, left flank, right flank, or straight up the middle? Big decisions, not to be taken lightly.

A reaction without a moment to consider the options, calm the rush of blood, and temper the adrenaline flow is needed to think with clarity. Our soldiers lives depended on it.

It is through this process that an appropriate response can be made, ensuring that even with incomplete information, a Leader can make the best decision for them, their team, and the success of the mission.


The discipline to withhold your Orders, when under fire, to give yourself a chance to Respond effectively with the information you have, rather than react immediately is not insignificant.

However, it works. It is a proven approach which requires discipline and practice. I also consider it con-discretionary. Those that you have the privilege to lead deserve the best decision making possible.

It does not matter what the decision is, or situation or what the stakes are. It could be at work, at home, or on the sports field.
Having the discipline to control that immediate reaction, taking a ‘condor moment’, and responding to whatever faces you will ensure that you make the best decision you can.

A Leader must learn to Respond, not React, only then can they ensure that they make the best decision they can when their team need it the most.

Written By Now Man

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