I heard a speech in 2009 about a very important principle of leadership: the importance of keeping an eye on what matters most, even in the face of an immediate or important crisis.
The following story was shared to illustrate this principle***:
On a dark December night 36 years ago, a Lockheed 1011 jumbo jet crashed into the Florida Everglades, killing over 100 people. This terrible accident was one of the deadliest crashes in the history of the United States.
A curious thing about this accident is that all vital parts and systems of the airplane were functioning perfectly—the plane could have easily landed safely at its destination in Miami, only 20 miles (32km) away.
During the final approach, however, the crew noticed that one green light had failed to illuminate—a light that indicates whether or not the nose landing gear has extended successfully. The pilots discontinued the approach, set the aircraft into a circling holding pattern over the pitch-black Everglades, and turned their attention toward investigating the problem.
They became so preoccupied with their search that they failed to realize the plane was gradually descending closer and closer toward the dark swamp below. By the time someone noticed what was happening, it was too late to avoid the disaster.
After the accident, investigators tried to determine the cause. The landing gear had indeed lowered properly. The plane was in perfect mechanical condition. Everything was working properly—all except one thing: a single burned-out lightbulb. That tiny bulb—worth about 20 cents—started the chain of events that ultimately led to the tragic death of over 100 people.
Of course, the malfunctioning light bulb didn’t cause the accident; it happened because the crew placed its focus on something that seemed to matter at the moment while losing sight of what mattered most.
So, an important lesson for all leaders: keep consistently focused on what matters most.
Don’t lose sight of the big picture. Don’t let an urgent issue (no matter how big or small) take our attention off the big picture, the most important stuff going on.
It is especially important to remember this during times of transition and change. As a leader, always keep the big picture in the forefront of your mind. Help others to do the same.
My advice on how to do this, especially in times of crisis & urgency?
- Reflect. Each day remind yourself of the priorities and big picture.
- Connect. Share with someone you trust, what you are thinking/feeling and your action plans. Help keep each other on course!
- Inspect. Examine what you’re spending your time and energy on. Does it fit within the big picture? Write stuff down. Keep detailed notes & communication to ensure information won’t be ‘lost in translation’.
It is a HARD task, to keep the big picture in mind while so much is going on around you. But as a leader, you need to do it. You need to lead others, as they struggle with the same thing(s).
But you can do it! Others will look to you! Work together to succeed!
***(Detailed description of the flight and crew found here; details of the crash found here. Full description found here – pay special attention to the section entitled “Cause of the Crash”. Official report can be seen here.)