If you have been in the Navy, Merchant Marine, or an airplane pilot, you are familiar with the term “in extremis.” It is a Latin phrase meaning “in the farthest reaches” or “at the point of death.” Simply put it means that you are now in a situation that no matter what either party does, a collision or catastrophic event cannot be avoided.
Another axiom for catastrophic situations is that they are the result of multiple decision points going the wrong way, any one of which if changed, could have altered the outcome.
In their book “Leading in Extreemis Situations: How Leaders Can Improve?” authors Deidre Dixon and Michael Weeks researched how military leaders reacted in life threatening situations. Their conclusion: leaders who have mental flexibility, sense of duty, and self-confidence were the best prepared for these dangerous situations. Additionally, they found that self-awareness, (understanding of individual capabilities) situational awareness, (knowing what is going on around you) and self-efficacy (how well or poorly a person can cope with a given situation) were key attributes. While military, and first responder situations are easier to document, there are parallels in the business world.
Miracle on the Hudson
Capt. Sully Sullenberger is credited with saving his passengers and crew while exhibiting all the traits noted above. Bureaucrats tried to show that he could have safely returned to multiple airports, but they didn’t take into effect the human factor. He and his copilot tried to relight the engines to no avail before he made the decision to not risk crashing into buildings and homes. The Hudson was his only alternative. He was self-aware of his skills: at the Air Force Academy he piloted gliders and was adept in “dead stick” landings. Another pilot likely would not have had that skill. He was situationally aware of the potential for additional loss of life, and he was able to stay calm in the minutes that he had to made critical decisions. This situation is not one that pilots practice in the trainer, so he was “making it up” as he went along.
There are multiple examples of planes crashing or ships colliding because the captain did not heed the advice of others, or they were afraid of contradicting him or her because of cultural norms or lack of psychological safety. Do you have that at your company?
Company Near Death Experience
If you have been involved in a startup company, you understand that how long your funding lasts until you can become cash flow positive is a daily struggle. One startup I was involved in did not receive a large check that were expecting from a funder. We were faced with the potential of “the company dying.” Fortunately, there was some money left in the check book and one of the founders took out a second mortgage on his house to give us more breathing room. Additional steps included laying off half of the employees, the founders taking no pay, and the rest of the team taking reduced salaries. We were able to talk to customers, resellers and vendors about the situation and kept the doors open until revenue rebounded and alternative funding was obtained.
Not all early-stage companies have a path forward and even though they have a compelling story, for many closing the doors is the best outcome. What might cause your company a near death situation?
Johnson & Johnson Tylenol Killings
In 1982, seven people died by ingesting Tylenol capsules that were laced with potassium cyanide. While not known at the time, the root cause was drug tampering and not a systemic problem with the product or its manufacturing. CEO James Burke had no playbook on how to handle this situation which he quickly assessed as dire. He ordered all Tylenol products to be recalled worldwide in a move that would cost the company millions of dollars. When the dust had settled, the result was increased product safety measures for all consumer packaging, and Burke was widely hailed for his courageous decision. He risked money rather than the potential for additional deaths of consumers or ultimately his company much the same way Captain Sullenberger opted to ditch his planes in the Hudson rather than risk crashing into a populated area.
Others who did not follow this example are Theranos, and multiple auto makers. Whose lead are you following?
How to improve your odds of survival
Common threads about in Extremis situations are the ability for leaders to quickly assess their options, decide on a course of action with limited understating of the potential consequences, and clearly articulating a path forward to safety. Even though military units, and airplane pilots practice how to avoid in Extremis situations, there is no way for all to be anticipated. Being able to think on your feet is paramount to surviving.
How are you anticipating “near death” in Extremis situations for your company? Do not be left with zero alternatives but focus on how to influence an avoidable outcome.
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