::: nBlog :::
During my teenage years in Helsinki’s Puistola, next to my beloved and now endangered Malmi airport, two events had special impact to my thinking and world view. One was the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the following confusion with official actions and communication. The other was Mathias Rust’s unauthorized flight from Malmi to Moscow’s Red Square in 1987, through one of the world’s most defended (Soviet) airspace at the time.
As many of you have seen in the recent, excellent miniseries, the first indication of the Chernobyl disaster outside the Soviet Union was a routine check in a Swedish nuclear plant, indicating that worker’s clothes had been insufficiently decontaminated. What the dramatized story does not tell is that the Finnish Radiation Safety Agency also detected these anomalies, but the reaction was delayed because the measurements were out-of-scale, prompting a suspicion of systemic instrument error. Some contemporary reports say that those values, according to standard procedures, should have triggered a mass evacuation in some Finnish population centers. Luckily the wind changed, but what really struck me then and now is the breakdown of the chain of command and leadership at the critical moment. Why and how does that happen?
Similarly in our then-massive neighbor Soviet Union, Mathias was actually tracked and detected by several radar stations, SAM missile batteries and even intercepted by Soviet fighter planes. However, he was able to continue and complete his journey as most air defense authorities did not believe what they were seeing on their screens and/or reports. Here too, chain of command, situational awaress and overall leadership broke down, even though slow cruise missiles (appearing similarly in radars as the small Cessna) were already developed and operational during 1980s.
Now close to 40 years later, I continue to preach to my people, and also to customers, about situational awareness, importance of the chain of command, and mental preparation for the unexpected. Everyone who is responsible for other people’s safety and well-being should train her or his mind also to extreme events, even though that likely feels uncomfortable and sometimes even scares people. But it’s one of the core responsibilities of a leader. While your people can concentrate on their areas of expertise, you as a leader must face the uncharted territories too. If you can’t handle it, admit it and be led by someone who can.