Opportunity Disguised as Adversity - In today’s workplace and also in our personal lives, we will at times certainly face adversity. As leaders, how we respond to adversity will define us as persons, will influence those we lead, and to a great extent, will even define our organizational culture.
A dramatic example of overcoming adversity and exhibiting true selfless and serving leadership stemmed from a highly unusual situation and setting. For those of you who have read some of my posted material or who crossed paths with me, you know that I have a propensity (OK, maybe more like an obsession) relative to using aviation metaphors, stories, and references to illustrate leadership concepts. This posting is no exception……
The Story - In March of 1967 over the skies of North Vietnam, in performing a challenging bombing mission, two U.S. Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter jets sustained substantial anti-aircraft battle damage over the target area. One aircraft was totally disabled and its two man crew was destined to eject over North Vietnam and in all probability be captured and confined to the horrific and infamous prisoner of war camp known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
Although leaking fuel and also sustaining other damage, the flight leader, then Captain Bob Pardo, observed the peril that his wingman was experiencing and made a heroic and selfless leadership decision to try to help. Instead of leaving the danger area and limping back to a safe recovery base, Pardo and his weapons system officer, assisted the fully disabled aircraft in a manner that had never been done before and has never been attempted again. His action, known as “Pardo’s Push”, entailed him using his damaged fighter jet to make physical contact with and then “pushing” his wingman out of North Vietnamese airspace to a safer location in Laos. In doing so, he placed himself in physical peril and also risked his USAF career by not doing what the “book” states that he should have done, that is taking all measures to preserve his own aircraft by immediately heading to an alternate recovery airfield.
In his extraordinary display of airmanship, grit, determination, and courage, after Captain Pardo pushed his wingman’s aircraft out of North Vietnam airspace, its crew ejected safely and was soon picked up by a rescue helicopter. By that time, Captain Pardo’s aircraft was too low on fuel and too damaged to rendezvous with an air refueling tanker or to recover to an alternate airfield. He and his weapons system officer ejected over Loas and were also eventually rescued.
The Aftermath - Upon returning to his squadron, Captain Pardo was quite understandably hailed as a hero by his fellow fighter pilots for his actions in saving his wingman from becoming a prisoner of war. However, since he lost an expensive asset, his fighter jet in doing so, the USAF top brass was less than thrilled and even wanted to court-martialed him. After several interventions from Captain Pardo’s boss, his squadron commander, thankfully, the brass settled for suppressing the entire incident. More than 20 years later, a member of Congress became aware of the “Push” and arranged for Captain Pardo, now a retired Lieutenant Colonel, to be awarded the Silver Star for his heroism, airmanship, and most importantly, his selfless display of leadership and dedication.
The Less Obvious Leadership Lesson - Although Pardo certainly deserves the recognition, credit, and accolades that he eventually received, I believe that one must also credit his squadron commander and other locally based leaders for creating a culture that, amongst many other key core values, also stressed loyalty to one’s colleagues and risk taking. Competence, commitment, and concern were hallmarks of Pardo’s close knot squadron. It was a culture that screamed that the all persons within one’s sphere of influence, were inherently vital and valued. Some may still contend that Pardo should have taken the safer route in preserving his aircraft but you will never convince his wingman and former squadron mates that his actions were ill advised.
Take Action - Influencing organizational culture is a key leadership responsibility. Our team members do not follow fancy mission statements, strategic plans, or annual reports. They follow a person and if we are their leader, that person needs to be us and must moreover be the best version of us.
Taking risks and doing the right thing are admirable always but are even more so when those actions may result in personal sacrifice or when they may even jeopardize some of our safety or comfort. Our job as leaders is not to somehow make people follow us but it is instead to become more worthy of being followed. Fueled by Pardo’s example and those of countless others like him in other organizations and circumstances, taking courageous action and especially sacrificial action in “pushing” one of our team members out of peril or perhaps pushing them into growth, is one way we become worthy of our leadership role.
Who in our circle of influence may need a “push” today? Let’s get out of offices and away from our screens to transcend our proverbial comfort zone in engaging that person. Are you ready to push someone today?