How to Survive the Missiles of Life
By Waldo Waldman
a crisp, clear spring day. You’re flying 633 mph at 22,000 feet,
with your wingman two miles off and exactly ninety 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. Over half your time is spent “checking
six”—looking behind you and your wingman for unseen threats or
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 ninety
degrees, and pull back as hard as you can, feeling the g forces
flatten you back into the seat.
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.
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 reestablish
mutual support. As if reading your mind, he calls out on the radio,
“Two, your visual is left ten 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.
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!”
successfully applied evasive maneuvering procedures (i.e.
you took action.)
wingman never lost sight of you.
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 coworkers,
supervisors, spouse, best friend.
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 tradeshow 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!
your wingman Joe, a fellow sales manager who’s your partner on
several accounts. 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.
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 in
the lobby of the building, who offer one-hour service. “Now, Phil,
let’s talk about the Acme account,” says Joe, pulling out a pad and
pen. “We have that big presentation, and we need a slam-dunk to win
the business. Here’s what I think we should do…”
fifteen 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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 coworkers, customers,
stockholders—and at some point, perhaps your very life—may depend on
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