It was late on a spring evening in Charlottesville, Virginia 30 years ago. I’d like to say it was Saturday, but more likely it was early on a Sunday. My friends and I were walking along the sidewalk of Rugby Road, which is dotted on both sides with fraternity and sorority houses. For reasons I can’t remember, my friend Woody and I were 40 or 50 steps ahead of our group. As it turns out, that left us vulnerable to attack.
Woody was on my right. We had the standard two or three feet between us, space that you never really think about until it’s violated. Ahead of us, a sole, stocky figure was approaching. We paid him no attention until he neared because it became clear that he intended to pass between us. That was weird, and it quickly got weirder.
Just as the interloper invaded our personal space, Woody muttered “What’s up?” At that exact moment, this guy raised both arms stiffly to our throats. The laws of physics quickly went to work. The physical strength of our new acquaintance, our forward momentum, and the power of gravity conspired to launch our bodies into mid-air before we crashed to the Earth like huge sacks of potatoes.
As I looked straight up from the sidewalk in shock, there suddenly were 20 unfamiliar sets of eyes looking down at me. Each set of eyes was attached to athletic-looking fellows with square jaws and the general physiques of super heroes. Worse for us, these were AGITATED super heroes.
As my son Ryan once said: I was in “twubble.”
I’m not sure whether it was unbridled fear or divine intervention at work, but something allowed me to summon a super-natural level of mental clarity from the sidewalk. I surveyed the situation and came to the rapid conclusion that the next words that came out of my mouth would determine whether I would live or whether I would die right there next to Rugby Road.
I had a tough needle to thread. If my tone was threatening or combative, I was dead. And not just dead, but really dead. If I was too soft in my response, I would come across as easy prey. I might be less dead, but I’d still be dead.
Somehow I needed to show humor, exhibit strength, and exercise restraint. This guy had just stiff-armed me in the jugular for no reason whatsoever. He wasn’t ready for a fight. He’d already started one.
I stood up. I pounded the guy on both shoulders and I screamed, “NICE POP!!”
The tension eased immediately. “You like that? I call that the ‘Russian Sickle,” he said.
It didn’t seem like a good time to mention that “Russian sickle” was horribly redundant.
We now were buddies. He through his arm around my shoulder and escorted me with his friends to a nearby fraternity party. It turns out this guy was a member of the Liberty University wrestling team. The assembled band of Herculean figures with which he was hanging that evening were the members of both the Liberty AND the University of Virginia wrestling teams.
I often wonder about how leaders make decisions. Equipped with time, data, and others’ expertise, it is crazy how often leaders make bad decisions. Way too often, leaders ignore the tools and information that are readily accessible and instead allow bias, misperception, and what feels right to pollute the decision-making process.
Somehow, though, bad decisions by leaders are both permissible and abundant in our culture. Why? Because there never is any real accountability for bad decisions. Wars are fought over faulty intelligence. Companies pursue ill-advised strategy because of a CEO’s gut decisions. Regulations are enacted based on the parochial interests of a privileged few.
But how often does Congress, boards of directors, or the media look at things that have gone horribly wrong and trace problems and dysfunction back to the decisions and judgment of leaders?
How did I make a great decision as a 20-year-old gazing up from the sidewalk? I examined the possibilities, weighed the pros and cons, and within a few seconds, chose the right path. Out of thousands of possible scenarios, I am convinced there was only one way out of that problem and I found it.
When given a comparably infinite amount of time, why do we so often allow knee-jerk reactions to dictate our decisions? Why do feel the incessant need to react immediately – to fill space with our words and our voice – when pausing for a few moments or longer will yield a better decision? (or certainly no worse) With data, studies, experience, and client perspectives available to guide decisions, why do we place so much confidence in our guts?
My friend Woody took a different approach. While I was screaming “Nice Pop,” he ran like hell. I’m convinced that the reason he now lives in California is because he wanted to put an entire continent between himself and that Russian Sickle incident. A few years ago, Woody emailed me and referenced that night on Rugby Road. I asked Woody why he thought he could outrun 20 wrestlers. He said it was just like the story about the bear. I was confused. He said it was like that story about the two friends being chased by a bear and the one friend took time to sit down and tie his shoes while the other friend panicked and told him there was no way he could outrun a bear. I was still confused. “The guy didn’t have to outrun the bear; he only had to outrun his friend,” said Woody. “That night, I didn’t have to outrun those wrestlers. I just had to outrun YOU.”
It seems that it was Woody, not me, who was supplied with supernatural judgment that night.