On December 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines flight 401 crashed in the Florida Everglades just outside of Miami, killing 101 people. It was the first ever crash of a widebody aircraft and is still one of the deadliest events in aviation history.
This crash is often referenced when pilots learn a phrase that’s especially useful in emergency situations: aviate, navigate, communicate.
Aviate means, first and foremost, keep the airplane flying. Navigate means to know where you are in relation to the terrain around you. Finally, if and when time allows, communicate with others and air traffic controllers.
The key is to make sure it happens in that order. When there is trouble, keep the plane in the air. Stay aware of where you are and where you are going. Finally, communicate if you can.
For whatever reason, things didn’t happen that way on flight 401. A landing gear indicator light burned out and it quickly consumed the attention of all three people in the cockpit. So much so that they didn’t notice the autopilot becoming disengaged. This resulted in a controlled descent right into the ground.
When things get complicated, it’s human nature for all of us to fixate on the most visible indicator in front of us. Sometimes, to the detriment of the larger goal.
The job of leadership is rarely to fixate on the issue of the moment. Rather, it’s to see the big picture, hold the vision for everyone, and navigate change, even in the midst of short-term obstacles.
If you’re handling a tough situation right now, are your team and you consumed with a single indicator — or are you first and foremost, flying the plane?