Saturday, September 4, 2010

A Litmus Test for Leaders – ‘Is this thing still flying?’

The reward for being a good problem solver is to be heaped with more and more difficult problems to solve.
- Buckminster Fuller

Writing for Reader’s Digest a few years back, Captain Alan Bean writes about his Apollo 12 mission. Bean states, “Test pilots have a litmus test for evaluating problems. When something goes wrong, they ask,”Is this thing still flying?” If the answer is yes, then there’s no immediate danger, no need to overreact.

When Apollo 12 took off, the spacecraft was hit by lightning. The entire console began to glow with orange and red trouble lights. There was a temptation to “Do Something!” But the pilots asked themselves, “Is this thing still flying in the right direction?” The answer was yes – it was headed to the moon. They let the lights glow as they addressed the individual problems, and watched orange and red lights blink out, one by one. That’s something to think about in any pressure situation. If your thing is flying, think first, and then act.”

Bean describes the litmus test that test pilots use to prepare for any scenario that comes their way. Likewise, a wise leader, while not obsessing over things that can go wrong, must exercise a degree of competence and skill that puts his company on sound footing in times of crisis.

The questions the test pilots ask are ones that will serve you well as a leader. The questions are tactical, and with the guidance of a steady leader will be an asset to your company. When things go wrong here are three questions to ask.

Is this thing still flying?—Evaluation. Bean observed that the temptation is to "do something!" Human nature dictates that when something bad happens we are to respond. But at times, our response is disproportionate to the size of the problem. In our knee-jerk reactions, we overreact.

Maya Lin said, “To fly we have to have resistance.” What perceptive leaders understand is that not all resistance is negative. While some may think the obstacles the company faces will ground them, a wise leader sees it as the very thing needed to give them flight.

When trouble comes and testing occurs the first reaction is not action, it is asking the right question – “is this thing still flying?” When a leader accurately answers this question setting the right course becomes much easier.

Is this thing still flying in the right direction? – Observation. This is critical to the success of the mission. If you are not on the right course, it doesn’t matter how fast you are flying, you will only get to the wrong destination quicker.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “The great thing in this world is not so much where you stand, as in what direction you are moving.” The test of your leadership and that of your organization is not whether you can face times of adversity and testing, but whether you can honestly evaluate where you are and what, if anything, you need to do about it. If you can answer the first two questions then it is time to honestly answer the third.

Is the right leadership in place? – Competence. Not all test pilots become astronauts. While their skills and abilities are admirable, not all have the right stuff. When it comes to the astronaut corps, only the best are chosen.

While it is a delicate question to ask, it is a legitimate one that needs an answer. It could be that that the leader that brought you to where you are will not, nor should be, the one to take you forward. Better to have the right leader in times of adversity than the wrong leader in times of prosperity.

How you evaluate problems as a leader will determine how your team perceives them and how they will overcome them. Evaluate properly, observe wisely, and be sure the right leader is showing the way.

© 2010 Doug Dickerson

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