“Yesterday, I would not have believed that tomorrow the sun would shine… I am alive again. I am alive again.” – Chicago
Twice in the past few years, I have cheated death. Now, maybe I really did not cheat death because, in the moment, my life did not pass before my eyes, a warm calm did not come over me, and I did not see a tunnel or a bright light. I will let you be the judge.
Last week, Mary and I were 3 days into a 4-day drive from Alamo, CA to Door County, WI. Since I am “unemployed”, we thought this would be a great time for us to make the drive to Door County for the summer instead of shipping our car. As we drove safely in the right lane of I-80 with the cruise control set on 83 mph (a mere 8 mph above the speed limit for all you “law and order” types or grandmothers), I was closing on a white, Chevy Impala that was following an 18-wheel big rig. I checked my mirrors, checked my blind spot, used my blinker and started to pass both the Chevy and the truck. It was as I pulled alongside the Chevy that the driver decided to also pass the truck and, without looking, started to pull into my lane. I slammed on the horn as I looked and saw the driver blissfully engaged in a conversation and in no way aware the she was about to slam into me at more than 80 mph. In an instant, we were careening down the embankment of the interstate. I struggled to keep our car from flipping over while I simultaneously scanned the median for roadblocks and waited for the 18-wheeler to land on top of us (I was certain the Chevy was going to “overcorrect”, hit the truck, and cause the truck to crash). Ultimately, I think we found the only median on I-80 completely free of obstructions and the truck driver maintained his composure and avoided disaster. After a few moments of driving down the middle of the grassy median, I found a level spot, checked my mirrors, re-entered the highway and we continued our journey. I had been run off an interstate highway at 83 mph and 5 minutes later was back on the road as if nothing had happened.
A few years ago, in the middle of a terrible bout of tendonitis in my elbow, I was “resting” the injury and avoiding playing golf. So, on a beautiful September day, with nothing else to do, I decided to clean my gutters. For several hours, I went up and down the ladder, removing debris and washing out the gutters all the way around the house. Being the risk management professional that I am, I was keenly aware of the risk imposed by climbing ladders (as my good friend, Tim Turner, once said, “Mike, there is a reason why ladder manufacturers are insured in the E&S market!” (non-insurance professionals, google it)). At the end of the day, I had one last task to complete – that single, rogue shingle out of line on the roof had been driving me crazy for months. I asked Mary to get my toolbox as I climbed the ladder one more time to get on the roof. As I was pushing off the final step of the ladder and transitioning on to the roof, the ladder slipped out from under me and I went straight back (I later noticed that all my fingertips were raw and cut as, I assume, I reached out when falling and tried to grab the roof shingles). As I was falling, I remember thinking, “Do not hit your head, Do not hit your head.” I was able to get myself into a “tuck” position and landed on our concrete patio with the brunt of the fall being absorbed by my lower back and elbows. As I lay on the ground, the ladder and a large flower planter laying on top of me, I wiggled my fingers and toes and realized I was not paralyzed. Then, I waited to be hit with the excruciating pain that would be associated with whatever compound fracture I had just received. But, no pain. I realized – I’m OK. Of course, calming Mary down when, upon returning from the garage with my tool box and encountering the sight of me on the ground, was another story. I had just fallen 14 feet backwards off my roof onto my concrete patio and all I had was a bruise and three stitches in my elbow.
In both examples, as I was in the middle of a “life and death” crisis, upon reflection, I was pleased that I stayed in the moment. I did not panic. I did not freak out. I did a mental checklist of what I needed to do to minimize the severity of an event that had caught me by surprise and was out of my control.
How many times in business are we faced with “life and death” situations? How did you react? Or, did you overreact? Did you set an example for your employees, help them stay calm and focused on the tasks necessary to mitigate disaster or did you cause them to panic and “head for the exits?” It is said that bravery is not the absence of fear – it is the handling fear.” Fear of failure is one of the most powerful emotions in business. Successful leaders use it to motivate them. Mediocre leaders let it control them.
There is a reason why our military trains and trains and trains. There is a reason why pilots are required to have thousands of hours of flight time before captaining a plane. There is a reason why doctors perform hundreds of operations on cadavers and work thousands of hours on call. There is a reason why athletes perform their task thousands and thousands of times in practice. And, there is a reason why young professionals (lawyers, accountants, and, yes, even insurance professionals) start with the “grunt work” and do repetitive tasks. It is referred to positively by the older generation and derisively by the younger generation as paying your dues. But, what it is really doing is preparing you for that day when, without warning, (forgive me) the shit hits the fan and you don’t have time to think, you just have to rely on your training and react.
Recently, I have been dealing with another bout of tendinitis. I have been sitting in our backyard and staring at the two top rows of bricks on our chimney that have been discolored from years of use of the fireplace. It drives me nuts to see that lack of consistency in the bricks. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands and fix them. Mary was out and would not be home for a while and I had nothing else to do. This time, I also avoided a “life and death” situation…
Mary had given away the ladder.
Michael C. Marcon is the founder and Managing Member of M3K Holdings, Chairman of The Marcon Foundation, founder and former CEO of Equity Risk Partners and former chairman of the Ursinus College board of trustees. He tweets from @mcm7464. Tweet him any of your questions about business, leadership or life.