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.