Last summer, my brother-in-law Fred organized a Florida Keys fishing vacation for me and my son, brother and nephew, as well as his friend from the army. For those of you who know me, you know that this was a different experience for me. My idea of “catching fish” is to visit a PetSmart. But I thought that spending time with the “boys” in the family would be good bonding.
Since all of us come from different generations, I thought it would be especially interesting for my son to hear the various perspectives and stories of these men. Additionally, two of the six vacationers are Army veterans, and I believe you can learn a lot about leadership from those who have served.
Fred and his friend are retired army helicopter pilots who fought in numerous wars. Their stories were so interesting and inspiring, and they are truly wonderful men. You can see how important preserving our freedom really is to them. You can also see how they are well trained, strong and decisive individuals. And you can tell that their time in the army had a profound and permanent impact on the way they live their lives, long after their tours were over.
They told a number of stories during this trip and each one was told with passion and humility. The stories focused largely on experiences in war. I have always told my son you can learn a lot by listening to other’s experiences. Before we left, I encouraged him to embrace this trip as not only an opportunity for some serious male bonding, but also an opportunity to listen to first-hand experiences that many of us only ever read about or see in movies. I personally learned a lot, as I always have when listening to Fred talk about his experiences. So many of the stories they shared on this trip had ties back to leadership, but there is one that stuck out to me.
Trusting your instruments
As we settled in one evening and ate what we caught that day, the two men talked about one of their scariest missions. During this particular battle, the helicopter came under enemy fire. Bullets were flying everywhere. The sky was filled with flashes. As they were flying just over the tree cover, they realized they needed to pull out or they would not survive.
Fred’s friend said his gut was telling him to pull the instruments one way, but when he looked at his dashboard, the metrics were telling him to do the opposite. In their training, they were told over and over again, “No matter what, trust your instrument.” But he felt the instruments were incorrect. He knew that if he followed the instruments, the helicopter would crash into the trees and he would probably die. In the last minute, he decided to follow the advice he was given during training. And sure enough, they began to pull away from the cover of trees and towards safety.
What he did not realize at the time, but realized once he got to safety, was that at some point during the battle, the helicopter had turned upside down. So while he thought he was still flying upright, he most certainly was not. His orientation was not right — the dashboard, his trainer’s voice, and his decisiveness saved his life.
I have never been in a situation that dire and I hope I never am. I can only imagine that in moments that severe, it is hard to keep your wits about you. Everything is happening so fast and decisions are made within a split second. The pressure around these decisions are not about embarrassment or rework, they are about life and death, truly.
Decision-making in business
Clearly, most of us are not making decisions that impact life and death, but we can learn a lot by listening to the experiences of those who have and thinking about the characteristics that made them successful in that situation.
As business leaders, we are making decisions that impact shareholder value, people’s livelihoods and the overall economy. However, many of us like to trust our gut. We do not have or rely on dashboards or reports. Or, maybe we do and we choose not to use them. Instead, we have “gut feelings” or we “just know better.”
I think as executives, too many of us fly by the seat of our pants. We may think we are flying upright, but actually, our context is upside down and our decisions lack perspective. Maybe we need to get our dashboards set early in the year and anchor them to our strategic context in order to make decisions.
Note of thanks
I had a great time this summer on vacation with the “boys.” Fred, I do listen to you – I just do not always admit it. Thank you for the sacrifices you have made as a veteran and thank you for the leadership lessons you continue to teach all of us who have not served by sharing your stories and experiences in battle.