It was a fascinating story of a Soviet officer by the name of Stanislav Petrov who had died quietly in May this year. Known as “the man who single-handedly saved the world from nuclear war", Petrov was the officer on duty monitoring the early warning system at a secret facility outside Moscow 34 years ago. Things had been tense in the weeks prior; the Soviets had shot down a Korean Air Lines jet killing all passengers and crew after it purportedly flew over their airspace.
The system first alerted that a single missile, then several more, had been launched by the United States. Although some other support service unit in the facility reported not detecting any launch activity, the protocol was clear: rely on the system data. Petrov’s responsibility was to assess, decide and report to his bosses, who would then confer with the Soviet leadership about launching a retaliatory strike. Time was of the essence; there was only 25 minutes from launch to impact. Every second he took to think, was precious time taken away from his superiors to make their decisions. In the end, despite the computers confirming the data, he decided that it was a system malfunction and reported it as such. Indeed, that was the finding later.
He later explained that he had been taught that if the U.S. were to launch a strike, it would be an all-out attack and felt that five missiles were just too few. He also thought that the new system he and his team were using had been rushed into service and was not without its faults. But, at the time, Petrov could not know for sure. In fact, in an interview much later, he said his decision was “50/50”. Still he had kept his wits about him even as 200 pairs of his subordinates’ eyes were on him to make the call.
As I read the story, I imagined how I would have reacted had I been the shift leader instead of Petrov. First, the onset of physical “ailments”: sudden throbbing headache, parched throat, clammy hands, aching urges to go to the toilet. Then, as people around me start to first ask, then shout, “Hurry up! What are you waiting for?”, my brain might been operating beyond its normal limits, working hard to keep me calm, registering as much information as it could, and quickly process the possibilities and the impact of the decisions it could make.
There are many training courses, articles, and tips everywhere on how to think critically and make good decisions. Collect data, ask experts, check your ego, use this tool or that tool, are just some of the useful and mostly effective suggestions. When we have the luxury of time, we can build processes that help us to do so. But life isn’t always so kind.
You might have been the airport manager when the fire broke out at Changi Airport in May this year. Or you might be the operations director of a logistics company which just compromised all its data due to a cyber hack. Or you might have been the duty officer when there were reports emerging of an explosive riot in Little India a few years ago. Or you might be a ship’s captain when numerous passengers start to fall ill with food-poisoning like symptoms while your ship is in the middle of the Pacific. Or you might be the events director when the VIP doesn’t show up or the catering company you contracted was suspended by the authorities a few hours earlier.
As good managers, we develop policies, map processes, put in place procedures, invest in technology and train our people to react to such scenarios. Yet I don’t think all the money or intelligence in the world can design systems, technology or otherwise, that can imagine every scenario, know every player in the game, and decide on a course of action that we may all, on review, agree was the wisest one. These are the critical moments when we have to act, and the times which “separate the boys from the men” and “peacetime leaders from wartime leaders”.
So what else can we do to keep ourselves finely tuned to be able react well to new situations? I think one way is to always spend some time to create imaginary scenarios to exercise our thinking and decision making skills. For instance, it so happens that the fire at Changi Airport was a small one and was put out quite quickly. Still it was not till several hours later before “normal” operations resumed. Now is a good time to imagine what if the fire had been much larger or if there had been multiple fires across the three terminal buildings. How would we respond? By exercising our thought processes, we can create new reference models in our heads which help us to make quicker decisions when we can match some of the circumstances with those we have already trained ourselves to think through.
Another way is to build and reinforce operating principles and values. This is where I credit a former boss for his advice when I was a young employee. He told me that the operating manuals would not be able to cover every single scenario that could happen, and so if I found it a challenge to make a decision, to use this principle: “First, think of the customer. Then, the company. Then, yourself. You cannot go far wrong.” How right he was! This same principle probably wouldn’t apply for every job in every company. When we are under tremendous stress and reach deep down to all our learning, experience and intuition, we may find little to guide us except the values we or our organisation believe and live by. What are those? Strengthen them and make sure we use them every day until they become part of our “DNA”.
Whether we face the operational challenges illustrated by some of the examples above, or are pushed to the edge by personal circumstances or at the negotiating table, if we have a strong set of principles or values to live or operate by, and if we constantly exercise our thinking and decision-making processes through new and challenging scenarios, there is a much better chance we can remain calmer, and make better decisions and be the “wartime leader” everyone respects.
ABOUT THE ARTICLE CONTRIBUTOR
Xavier Lim is a senior consultant with Organisational Development Concepts specialising in areas of people-centric leadership. He previously held various leadership roles across various functions at Singapore Airlines, and was a member of the senior leadership team at Tiger Airways.
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