Break right! How to survive the missiles of life

Waldo Waldman
Tags: talent management

Picture a crisp, clear spring day. You're flying 633 miles per hour at 22,000 feet, with your wingman two miles off and exactly 90 degrees to your right on a combat mission in southern Iraq's no-fly zone. You both are scanning for enemy aircraft, surface-to-air missiles (SAMS) and radar activity. More than half your time is spent "checking six" – looking behind you and your wingman for unseen threats or movement.

Suddenly, you hear your wingman's voice blare over the radio, "Break right, break right! Missile launch, your five o'clock!" Your heartbeat ramps up and you feel the surge of adrenaline as your fight-or-flight reflex kicks in.

This all happens in an eye blink, and in that same instant, it's time to act. Instinctively, you break right – crank the stick to the right, bank the aircraft 90 degrees and pull back as hard as you can, feeling the G forces flatten you back into the seat.

You lower the nose, jettisoning chaff and flares to help break the radar lock, and crane your neck around behind you to get a "visual" of the missile. The smoke plume of its exhaust becomes easily visible as you continue the maneuver to avoid the missile's flight path. Fortunately for you, it detonates a thousand feet from your aircraft. In some ways, it all feels like a dream.

Then, before you can even relish the victory, you realize that you're now "low and slow" – a perfect target for more SAMs. The fear grabs you once again as you rocket skyward to gain altitude while continuing to scan for missiles … and your wingman! You need to re-establish mutual support. As if reading your mind, he calls out on the radio, "Two, your visual is left 10 o'clock, three miles, high." You refocus in that direction and take a deep breath of relief as you find your wingman on the horizon, rejoin him and continue the mission. You have survived.

This is just another day in the life of a fighter pilot. But, let's look closer. Just what made surviving that attack possible?

Without hesitation, you took your wingman's advice when he said "Break right!"

You successfully applied evasive maneuvering procedures (i.e. you took action.)

Your wingman never lost sight of you.

You're flying missions every day, too, at work and at home. They generally aren't as intense as combat, but the pressures and the stakes are real nonetheless. The key, not just to surviving but to winning these missions, lies with your wingmen – your trusted partners and collaborators. And these wingmen come in all guises: your co-workers, supervisors, spouse, best friend.

Now imagine this scene: You arrive at the office, mud on your shoes, your clothes soaked. Your car blew a tire on the way in, and when you got out to have a look, a pickup truck hit the puddle next to you and the water flew.

After enduring jokes from the receptionist and anyone else who sees you, you get to your office and find that the printed and collated copies of your big presentation for the upcoming meeting were delivered on schedule – bound upside down and in the wrong order. Throw in your two junior staff members complaining about the raises they didn't get, and you can start to feel the steam shooting out your ears. Not exactly missiles, but enough to make you feel as if you were crashing to earth!

Enter your wingman Joe, a fellow manager who's your partner on several key projects. He closes your office door, lets you rant a little while, then starts to calm you down and get you back on the right flight path. Someone in the print shop owes him a favor – he'll be able to get your copies fixed in time. The two whining staff members? Joe points out that one received a promotion and raise just six months ago, and the other is up for a performance review in a week. You'll be able to give a pay bump then – problem solved.

As your blood pressure inches back down, Joe suggests that you pull a change of clothes from your gym bag and give your suit to the cleaners down the road, who offer one-hour service. "Now, Phil, let's talk about the request for predictive maintenance funding," says Joe, pulling out a pad and pen. "We have that big presentation, and we need a slam-dunk to win the funding. Here's what I think we should do …"

In just 15 minutes, your trusted wingman has helped you "break right," deploy your defense systems, and "cover your six." You're both back in formation and on your way to the next battle.

Are you even aware of the wingmen at your office and in your life? Are you backing each other up, "checking six" for missile launches, and calling out "Break right!" when necessary? Most importantly, when your wingmen say, "Break right," will you heed the call? Or, will you instead question them, doubt their credibility, or maybe even resent them for telling you what to do?

Have you ever been in a situation where you've worked hard for something – a new project at work, a promotion, marriage or a chance to coach your child's team – and one of your wingmen pulls you aside and gently explains that you're not quite ready, or maybe not even right, for this responsibility? Maybe you were criticized about some very personal issues, told that to improve your chances of winning the new client you'd need to change your clothing style, your communication skills or your ability to speak before an audience. Your wingman has spotted "bogies" bearing down on you and is warning you to "break right" before serious trouble ensues.

Although it feels like a personal insult, the choice you make in that moment is critical: Heed the call and avoid getting shot down; or ignore the warning, and you or someone you care about may get hurt.

As we have seen, being a wingman is all about trust. Trust implies mutual respect, confidence, even compassion. Not everyone can be your wingman, and that's why you must choose carefully. After all, who wants to be criticized by someone we don't trust.

Being a wingman also implies shared responsibility. You not only need to listen carefully (and act) when you hear "Break right!" – you need to be willing to call it out, as well. This takes courage. But if you really care about someone and consider them your wingman, you have to do what's right to help this person grow.

Every day in business, you're placed in situations where you may need wingmen to help you "fly" more effectively, gain perspective, and keep your work and home environments safe and running smoothly. Wingmen help us with perspective, because it's easy to get so focused on a project or so comfortable with our habits that we lose sight of the big picture. Thus, we can be flying with blinders on without ever knowing it – a bad idea when the missiles start coming at us.

The key here is self-leadership and accountability. It means being open to feedback and heeding the warning calls that your wingmen may send you. Then, by taking action (refocusing your attention and adjusting your flight path), you'll avoid the missiles, get back on target, and continue the mission safely and effectively.

So I invite you, my fellow wingmen, to look around the skies and identify the wingmen in your personal and professional lives, who may need to hear you say, "Break right!" Just as important, keep an ear cocked for their calls, too. Your co-workers, customers, stockholders – and, at some point, perhaps your very life – may depend on it.

About the author:

Waldo Waldman builds team unity within organizations as a high-energy leadership inspirational speaker. A former combat-decorated fighter pilot with corporate experience, Waldo brings an exciting and valuable message to organizations by using fighter pilot strategies as building blocks for peak performance, teamwork, leadership and trust. 

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