A Personal Take on Addressing Crisis

The realization of what the doctor discovered hit instantly—the massive tumor in my lower colon was very likely cancer. Potentially advanced cancer. The news was stunning.

The doctor was apologetic. His words and his overall demeanor both spoke volumes: he was very worried for me, and for my family. The day went from happy to horrible in an instant.

Even though I was still groggy from the colonoscopy I recognized immediately that my world was about to be forever altered. I sat there next to my pregnant wife on a bright sunny day in downtown Stuttgart, Germany, and realized we were in for a fight to regain my health. If things went well, we were in for a long fight. And at the end of the day this was a fight I could also lose, and quickly. Follow-on tidal waves were forming and would hit a couple times in the coming days. Things were decidedly not good and were rapidly getting worse.

Looking back on that moment it strikes me how calm my wife and I were. We left the doctor’s office and immediately went to lunch—I was famished from the colonoscopy prep and my wife was starving as well, driven by her pregnancy. In stark contrast to the news it was a stunningly gorgeous day, a welcome break from the dreary winter, which ultimately helped to soothe our souls. We started to regroup in a bright, cheerful cafe. Lunch was remarkably peaceful.

I distinctly remember us outlining our initial action steps and building the outline of our near-term plan. Time was not on our side as the tumor was massive, and we recognized the need to bias for action. It turns out that just building the plan helped us maintain our calm.

We recognized the need to make high-quality decisions. But we also knew that there was no way to know whether the decisions we were making were correct until after we lived through the results…a tough situation driven by the complexity of our circumstances. This realization alone gave us the peace to move forward: we determined to do the best we could and then adjust as necessary based on what we experienced real-time.

Subconsciously I was personally driven by the following approach:

  • Maintain aircraft control.
  • Analyze the situation and take appropriate action.
  • Land as soon as conditions permit.

These three lines are the articulation of how we as pilots learn to handle emergencies while we’re flying. These lines are driven into our brains as young pilots in pilot training, and we refer back to them throughout our flying careers. The approach is centered on prioritizing tasks, making smart decisions that help us solve the right problem the right way at the right time. It is also a driver for taking action and, in the end, it is an approach organized to help us return home safely.

Maintain aircraft control. This is a reminder to prioritize flying—to make sure we don’t hit a mountain or crash into the water or do something else that would jeopardize our ability to return home safely. Translated into the non-flying world this means focusing on the core tasks that keep things running before figuring out how to navigate the uncertainty of the moment. Think “keep the lights on now” before doing anything else.

Analyze the situation and take appropriate action. This is a reminder to not jump to conclusions, to not rush to a “fix” before considering all available information. It reminds us to strive to prioritize among the various problems we’re facing and to be deliberate in how we strive to solve them. In the absence of guidance, it’s designed to remind us to think things through before acting, to give us that best chance of making high-quality decisions.

Land as soon as conditions permit. This is a reminder to figure out options for getting back on the ground, which may involve landing someplace we might not normally. Translated into the non-flying world it encourages us to think about the range of possibilities, and not just center on continuing business as usual. It also reminds us that we need to do something—to bias for action—as opposed to endlessly deliberating possibilities.

In the days following the cancer diagnosis my wife and I developed a plan to keep the family together and “flying” while I fought to regain my health. Together we determined a means of maintaining control of our family.

We analyzed the situation and took appropriate action. We decided who was going to perform my surgeries, which drove the location where they would be performed. We built a “home team” support plan and organized to have both of our mothers come to Germany to help us with our kiddos. We developed our own crisis checklist and vowed to follow it.

And then we sought to land as soon as conditions permitted by finding a new place to land. We decided to retire early from the Air Force and come home to the United States, returning to family and building stability in the event that cancer would return. As tempting as it was to keep going with a career that was in high gear, we decided it was more prudent to “land now”.

I’m happy to report that last Friday was my 6-year cancer-free anniversary. My family is healthy and well. And we love living in St. Louis, our new “home base”, the location of our new “runway.”

I offer my story, as well as the approach to handling emergencies, as a way to approach navigating the uncertainty of the present crisis. My ultimate counsel is this: we all need to take a minute to breathe. We need to take the time we’ve been given to make sense of the uncertainty we’re facing. And then we need to bias for action, recognizing that not all of our current decisions will be the best…but recognizing as well that we can still regroup and hopefully still find a good place to “land.”

In the midst of all of this, VMax Group will be here. We’re developing courses to help teams navigate this uncertainty and come out stronger on the other side. We’re leveraging technology to deliver training to distributed teams and we’re engineering tools to help teams better prepare for organizational life after COVID-19.

Keep hanging in there. Know you’re not alone. And thank you for what you’re doing to keep America strong as we navigate the global pandemic!

Keep winning! Your Friend,