Many of us have experienced what it’s like to lead in the middle of a crisis (if you haven’t yet, remember when you’re in one to be sure to absorb and learn along the way–it’s a shame to waste a good crisis).
A person’s true character reveals itself. Tempers flare, nerves are raw, stress is off the charts, stakes are high.
But very rarely are stakes as high as they were on September 26th, 1983.
44-year-old Soviet lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov stood in the Moscow secret command center as flashing lights, screaming sirens, and reams of information of the “highest level” of reliability suddenly assaulted his senses.
The country’s Early Detection System was howling at him that the United States had just launched five Minutemen intercontinental ballistic missiles.
It wasn’t as if it was totally out of nowhere. This was the middle of the Cold War Era when three weeks earlier the Soviets had shot down a Korean airline for violating airspace, killing all passengers on board including a Georgia congressman. The incident caused President Reagan to label the Soviet Union as an evil empire.
Tensions were beyond elevated and things just went into another stratosphere.
So. What to do?
200 pairs of eyes staring at you, only 25 minutes before the missiles would strike the Mother Land, and your next phone call could change the world.
Hold that thought.
This wasn’t the first time such an incredible scenario unfolded, and in fact, it wasn’t even the first Soviet commander it happened to–within the last two decades.
Let us leave Petrov’s story for a moment and go back still further in time to October 27, 1962, dubbed “The most dangerous day in history.”
The most dangerous day in history
It was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when U.S. ships discovered one of four Soviet submarines patrolling the coast of Cuba (submarines which, it would later be discovered, were armed with torpedoes tipped with Hiroshima sized nuclear bombs).
The Soviet submarine commanders were all cleared to fire at their discretion and, scarier still, had been out of communication with Moscow for weeks (given the depths they were patrolling at) with no understanding of what was happening on the surface above.
The aircraft carrier USS Randolph fired depth chargers near the Soviet subs as a pre-agreed upon signal that they needed to surface immediately. The Soviet subs, being out of contact with Moscow, misinterpreted this act as one of extreme aggression.
The two officers on board the Soviet submarine each consented to use their half of the torpedo launch key, and prepared to let hell loose. Enter Vasilli Arkhipov, the commander of the entire Soviet fleet, who happened to be on board that same sub.
Hold that thought one more time.
Back to our friend Petrov, who we left mid-bowel movement to deal with utter chaos in the Moscow secret command center.
Petrov, calling on his military training, calm demeanor, pure reason (and even his gut), did indeed pick up that big red phone, but to report the incident as a computer malfunction, which it turned out it was.
He stayed calm, relied on his training, took in as much information as he could to get the clearest possible picture of reality–and averted global disaster.
His training taught him that were the U.S. to ever attack, it wouldn’t be with just five missiles. He knew that the Early Detection System was installed hastily after the United States installed a similar system and was likely prone to error (it was, in fact, confusing the glimmer of the sun off a cloud with a fired missile).
Now, back to 10,000 leagues beneath the sea where commander Arkhipov reached a similar conclusion on the submarine (although missiles were most definitely fired).
He reasoned that things weren’t adding up and told his itchy trigger finger officers, who had full rights to fire in absence of him, to stand down and buy time to clear up what was a confusing scenario.
He too was calm, relied on training, and bought time to understand reality.
In so doing, the real situation came to light and thus nuclear war was averted (the first of two times by a Soviet hero in about 20 years) and Arkhipov came to be known as “The Man Who Saved the World” (a moniker Petrov also inherited).
Become the “Person Who Saved the Day”
So, before you fire your own missiles in crisis, think of Stanislav Petrov and his predecessor and make sure you fully understand the situation. Stay calm. Quickly take in all the information. Slow time down.
And you may just become “The Person Who Saved the Day”.
It should be noted that Mr. Petrov’s death in May 2017 had gone unreported until now.
Rest in well-earned peace, sir.
This article by Scott Mautz also appeared on Inc.com. To read more Inc. articles by Scott Mautz, click here.