“When We Don’t Fly, People Die.”

Posted by on July 15, 2013

KariGrainger“So there I was, first time in Iraq, officer in charge, first time under fire. I had been studying at the Air Force Academy for 4 years. I had a master’s degree in leadership. And I was scared. You know, the first time I heard the BOOMs, the sirens. And I was hunkered down by the sandbags with my flak vest over me, and I won’t say the words that were coming out of my mouth, but knowing that a leader should be courageous did not make me courageous. Knowing that a leader ought to be a certain way did not give me access to being that way. And five, six years of leadership education didn’t give me what I needed in that moment.”
– Kari L. Granger

I was on the phone with a good friend who spent 6 days in a high-level conference on leadership at a major university last week. Forty speakers presented all the latest research. I asked my friend to share with me what he felt to be the most interesting thing he learned.

“The importance of context,” he said.


“We don’t choose our words and our actions as carefully as we think we do. Our thoughts, attitudes, words and actions are dramatically affected by context.”

“I’m not sure I’m getting it”

“Every situation has a context that shapes the way the situation occurs for us, and consequently the way we interact with the situation.”

“I’m still not sure I get it.” (I’m pretty dense sometimes.)

My friend then told me about the speaker that fascinated him the most. “A young woman spoke to us who had been in charge of an aircraft maintenance unit in Iraq. Sixty-five percent was the standard for ‘mission success’ in repairing damaged aircraft within a certain period of time. Her maintenance unit was operating with a 58 percent mission success rate until she got a call one morning at 2:30AM to get a team together, fly into a combat area, fix a broken aircraft and bring it back. It was during that trip that she met the men and women whose lives depended on the aircraft she was repairing. They told her, ‘When these don’t fly, we die.’ Her context changed. She repaired that airplane with bullets flying all around her, flew it back to her maintenance unit and the very next day her team began operating with a mission success rate of 100 percent.”

Google is wonderful, isn’t it? Even though my friend couldn’t recall the young woman’s name, it took me only about 30 seconds to find a 1 hour and 46-minute video of Kari L. Granger telling that story in detail. The image of her above the title of today’s memo and all of the quotes you’ll find herein were transcribed from it.

“I started meeting the guys that were relying on our aircraft. You know, the brothers, the husbands, the fathers, the sons. And I started to learn the consequences of what happened when our aircraft didn’t make it; the consequences when our aircraft wasn’t there to pick people up or to drop needed equipment. And a particular model of our aircraft that held electronic jamming equipment; what happened when they didn’t fly; the consequences of this. I started to learn the impact of our 58 percent mission success rate. On real faces. And what I learned was that when we don’t fly, people die. It altered the whole thing for me. Quite literally, ‘When we don’t fly, people die.’ And I’m talking both sides die. And the daily, the small, moment-by-moment tasks started to have a whole new meaning.”

Context. Now I get it.

Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to help my staff see exactly what happens when the ads we write and the media we negotiate fail to bring in customers. I’m going to share with them – just as Kari Granger shared with her maintenance team – exactly what I’ve seen happen when advertising doesn’t work.

I’m going to do my best to show my people the life-changing importance of the daily, small, moment-by-moment tasks we do each day. I’m going to help them understand what happens when we do our job well. And what happens when we don’t.

I’m really glad my friend attended that 6-day conference. I’m really glad he chose to give me the gleaming nugget of gold that Kari gave to him.

And now that nugget of gold lies warm in your open palm.

What are you going to do with it?

Roy H. Williams

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