A Little Perspective

by Mario on July 19, 2009

in General Leadership,Opinion

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It was January and freezing and dark and I was sure of only one thing;  we were all going to die. Helicopters can’t fly without fuel and we were running out.  We had stayed on scene too long and the headwind was literally killing us.   Alone on the ocean – eighty miles behind us – my best friend, Mike, was dying too.  Our hoist cable broke and we couldn’t get him back.  The last time we saw him he was climbing into a life raft – hopelessly screaming our call sign into his radio.  As I thought about our fate and Mike’s and wondered how my daughter was going to take the news, I realized my past was gone and I began thinking about my future.  I wondered if I would survive the crash, or not; would I be able to get out of the helicopter before it sank, or would I drown clawing at my seat belt; If I made it out, would freezing to death hurt?   For the first and only time in my life I was truly terrified.

I’m writing this now so I was wrong about the dying part.  A miraculous 180 degree shift in wind direction helped us limp to Wilmington, NC.  Thanks to the heroics of our C-130 crew who shut down two engines to stay on scene, Mike wasn’t lost at sea. And though none of us came home with visible scars, I have never forgotten what terrified feels like. I have never forgotten what “desperate” really is.  When I remember that night in January of 1995, I remember what “bad” is.  That was bad.  My baseline for the word had been reset. A week later I found myself compulsively scratching out a note to put above my desk.  Still there,  taped up in plain view as a reminder, it reads: “I’ve been to where bad is, and this is not it.” Though that particular mission nearly took everything, it gave me  what I believe to be the most valuable thing a leader can have. It gave me perspective.

Perspective changes everything. It will let you know when its time to dig in and fight, and when its alright to concede.  Perspective allows you to remain calm when everyone else is frantic.  Knowing what is bad and what isn’t gives you a certain coolness under what is pressure to everyone else, and that can make all the difference.  When faced with a “crisis” (please) the ability to temper your reaction accordingly and face the problem makes things better.  Calm beats frazzled every time. And though I have a point in all this, for the life of me I have struggled to get it out.  I’ve been mulling over this idea (and this piece) for weeks.  Waking up this morning though, it hit me:  Leaders never whine. Complaints about… well, pretty much anything, are never heard from the truly effective.  And I believe it is that all-calming perspective that is the one thing (if you had to pick one) that leaders should focus on when problems arise.

All kinds of serious events in life have the ability to effect perspective in a positive way and bring calm to a chaotic world.  Cancer survivors (I’ve noticed) do not often worry about being late to work.  ”It just seems odd to complain about being anywhere after getting your will in order”, a surviving friend of mine once said.  And those, “You wont believe what happened to me at the office today” stories aren’t often heard from the mouths of combat veterans. There is something about asking a buddy to carry a goodbye letter to your wife “just in case” that makes getting excited over a missed deadline because the copier broke seem like a sin against the universe.  Serious illness is a bad problem, so is combat. Someone you love in pain, abject poverty, the state of affairs in dozens of countries around the world; these are all serious things.  But nothing (no – I am serious…nothing) that can happen to your business gets anywhere close to being bad.  Reacting to anything in your work life as if it is a crisis is never the appropriate response.

I’m sorry that I don’t have loads of advice on how to achieve coolness.   All I can come up with after serious research and considerable reflection is to do some reflection of your own from time to time.  No matter how bad things seem at work – remember that you are at work, and how bad can it be?  Problems are inevitable, but if they can be solved with time, or effort, or money, then you don’t have a problem.  Wait, work, make more money here and spend less there and your “problems” are solved.  And though I have no idea who you are, I do know that if you have read this far into one of my leadership rants than you are a seeker. And people that have lived completely care free lives don’t seek. You have lived long enough to experience the best and worst of things and made it through.  What I mean is;  the next time you are facing a problem in the office, remember your life.  Come on;  … You’ve been to where bad is, and this is not it.

 

  • Steven Conway

    Great article Mario and right on. On June 6th, 2008 at 2330 we had a catastrophic keel failure on the 38' sailing vessel Cynthia Wood and resulted in one crew being trapped onboard and drown and 5 crew floating in the water for 26 hours until picked up by a CG helo.

    My very short message that I got from the experience is similar —
    LIFE IS WONDERFUL – SAVOR IT

    When I say savor it, I mean the little things; the taste of a bite of steak, a sip of wine, holding your grandson for the 1,000th time.

    Steven Conway
    CDR USCG (Ret)
    USCGA Class of '75

  • Michele

    Great article. It's too bad there's some big red blob about tweets or something right in the middle of the page obscuring the beginning of every line there. There doesn't seem to be any way to make it go away.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/weeklyleader weeklyleader

    Sorry about your experience. I had trouble replicating it. What operating system and browser version are you using? That would be helpful in order to debug. Thanks.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/mvittone Mario Vittone

    Steven:

    I was saddened at your reminder of the Cynthia Wood's tragedy. I remember reading about Roger Stone's heroics and sacrifice. (The "crew" Mr. Conway mentioned was trapped because he pushed two students out of the vessel as it foundered, leaving no time for him to save himself.) Your own actions that day leave no doubt that you are one of "those guys." Thank you for your dedicated service and mostly for your selflessness. Like the perspective you have well earned, it is a rare thing.

    Mario

  • Tim Quiram

    Mario – great post.

    My first wife passed away in 2002 after a long illness. I remember waking up every morning and checking to see if she was breathing – usually I was relieved that she was, but on some days her suffering was so bad I wasn’t. That 7-year experience changed me in many ways, one big one was perspective. I’ve tried to infuse some of this perspective in my teenagers – trips to third-world countries with their church youth group have helped.

    Question for you, I know life-changing perspective is priceless in a crisis, but I have sometimes wondered how best to apply its lessons day-to-day. For example, how do you best harness it to address issues that your people have that aren’t that big a deal in light of your perspective, but are to them in light of theirs?

    Tim Q

  • http://www.maritimegateway.com Radhika

    Hi Mario, yeah a little perspective but that can make a difference.

    I am working as the associate editor of Maritime Gateway, a magazine that caters to ports, shipping and logistics. I would like to invite you to write an article for us. Would be glad to have your email ID. My email id is: radhika@gatewaymedia.in

    -Regards
    Radhika

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/mvittone Mario Vittone

    Tim:

    Excellent question, Tim

    For me, the best way to apply perspective in a way that everyone can understand is to take those “big deals” to their logical conclusion. Regardless of life experience, nobody ever worries about what is happening, they worry about what might happen next. When you are on the edge, you’re not worried about being too close, you are worried about falling…until you fall…then you’re no longer worried about falling…you’re worried about stopping. It is the uncertainty that causes alarm. So help them over their uncertainty by using your experience to help them draw their own conclusions about the possibilities. “Let’s say that this all goes wrong – what will that look like? What is the worst that can happen?” That is a good line of questioning to help people realize that the “worst” thing often isn’t unmanageable.

    Then – “If that happens that way, what can we do about it?” What is our plan then?”

    Your experience has reset your baseline for a bad day, Tim. For those with less…experience, talking their concerns out to the possible ends is often all it takes to set the fear of that thing aside and take meaningful action.

    Best,

    Mario

  • http://www.beningerartwork.com Genevieve

    I've had similar experiences growing up on tall ships, but not everyone has these frames of reference, and few people realize that perspective is in effect, a choice.

    When faced with despair in others, you have to ask yourself, what perspective have they unwittingly chosen, and how can you help them choose a different perspective? What is their range of experience? Where can they see themselves going from here?

    Perspective can change your life; past, present and future. You can choose how you decide to "see" an event, an action, an unkind word, a history. For example, take two people who experience a stifling childhood. One takes the perspective that they were robbed of opportunities and therefore expect to lead a mediocre life. The other sees their stifling childhood as what gave them strength, resilience, and passion to live the remainder of their life to its fullest. The latter chooses to see that experience as a stepping-stone to something better, rather than a weight that drags them down.

    Yes, perspective can change your life… and if you see it as a choice, then, by extension you can choose your life.

    Cheers,
    Genevieve.

  • Sean

    Your message is an important one, especially during these difficult economic times when unhappy workers can not easily find a different job. Thank you for saying it so well. I hope to use your article to help some valued employees get some better perspective on our latest "crisis" at the office.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/mvittone Mario Vittone

    Thanks Sean – I'm certain you'll get through it. Focus on the actionable and not the emotional and your two-thirds done.

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