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A Veterans Day tribute: Leadership from beyond the gut

November 11, 2020
clock 5 MIN READ

This week we honor veterans. We honor all the men and women who have been brave enough to put their lives on the line to fight for someone else’s freedom. It’s a job that truly personifies courage, passion and selflessness. 

There is one veteran in particular on my heart and my mind a little extra this week. My brother-in-law, Fred, an army helicopter pilot who fought in a number of wars. His stories were powerful and stayed with you, long after he told them. He wasn’t just my brother-in-law, he was a brother to me. We lost Fred a few years ago and I still miss him every day. The lessons he taught my family and me continue to impact us each and every day. 

One story in particular has been on my mind. I shared it many years ago on this blog, and in honor of Veterans Day, in honor of Fred, I wanted to share it again with all of you.

Much more than a fishing trip

In the summer of 2014, Fred organized a Florida Keys fishing vacation for my son, brother, nephew and me, 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 were Army veterans, and I believe you can learn a lot about leadership from those who have served.

They told a number of stories during this trip, each one with passion and humility. The stories focused largely on experiences in war, and were so interesting and inspiring. These are truly wonderful men. You can see how important preserving our freedom really is to them. You can also see how they were 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 lived their lives, long after their tours were over.

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, their 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 instruments.” 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 clients, partners, investors, our employees’ livelihoods and the overall economy. However, many of us like to trust our gut. We do not have or rely on dashboards, reports or critical training. 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 and anchor them to our strategic context in order to make decisions. 

Note of thanks

I had a great time that summer on vacation with the “boys.” Fred passed away just a few years later and I will be forever grateful for this trip, in more ways than I can adequately state. To Fred, and all the brave men and women like him, who continue to serve our country, 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.

Albert Chiaradonna

Executive Vice President, SEI Global Private Banking

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