Leadership Lessons: The Disaster that Saved My Career

HurricaneFrederic

Hurricane Frederic Bearing Down on the U.S. Gulf Coast – September 12, 1979

Our son Sam turned 36 last week, and during a misty morning walk with the dogs, I began to reminisce on where I was at this time 36 years ago.

Let’s see…early September, 1979…I was two-thirds of the way through Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida, working towards a commission as a Navy Ensign, the first big step towards becoming a full-fledged Naval Flight Officer.

I had made it through the infamous “Poopie Week”, the usual blend of minimal sleep, in-your-face drill instructors and physical exercise (“Sit-ups at 5 am, anyone?”).

It was a working laboratory of the most refined break ‘em down before you build ‘em up tactics that your tax dollars can buy. Academics, from basic aero to “Organization of the Navy”, were going well. I had made the cut on the cross-country course. I had only seen stars once during the required boxing match. I was on a path to an October graduation and commissioning, except for one thing.

The obstacle course.

Ah, yes. The obstacle course at Naval Air Station Pensacola. A hellish four minute sprint through a series of ninja warrior barriers including multiple four foot fences, a seven foot wall, monkey bars, a maze, a ten foot wall with climbing rope and a wavy “cross the creek” bridge that was thirty feet long but only a few inches wide.

All that being said, the biggest obstacle was…sand.

Lots and lots of sand. Beautiful pure, white, Gulf coast sand blanketed the waterfront course. It was ostensibly there to cushion our landings and falls, but it was clear that it was there for another, more insidious reason. It functioned as a kind of anti-Teflon. It added friction to our every step and stole momentum in every turn. It slid away under our feet as we ran and burned out our legs and lungs. It sapped our spirits. It, along with the other obstacles, biased the course towards the kinds of candidates who typically did well in high-performance flight…short in stature with plenty of upper body strength and a focus on disciplined, compact movement.

That wasn’t me.

In 1979, I was 6’-5” tall and weighed in at 185 pounds. My nickname was “Lightning Rod” because in formation with all of my squat, silver-helmeted colleagues, I stood out during Gulf Coast thunderstorms like, well, a lightning rod. Despite the fact that I hated pull-ups, despised climbing ropes, and wasn’t exactly a study in upper body strength, I was able to complete the course. Unfortunately, with the sand ebbing away under every footfall, I couldn’t make it through in the required time. The bottom line was that I was going to wash out of my dream job because of sand.

Little did I know that on my son’s birthday, August 28, 1979, a tropical depression was forming south of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. Over the next two weeks, that atmospheric curiosity would wander across the Atlantic, grow into Hurricane Frederic, and slam into the US Gulf Coast as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 135 mph. Damage estimates ranged up to $6b. Frederic was a major pre-Katrina setback to the region, with a full-scale evacuation, a bulls-eye landfall on the Redneck Riviera and Mobile Bay, and devastation to housing, roads, and industry caused by high winds and a vicious storm surge. Ships washed ashore, the Dauphin Island bridge vanished, and the storm packed such a punch that it carried torrential rain into Pennsylvania two days later. “Frederic”, as a name for tropical cyclones, was officially retired. Thanks Fred, you’ve done quite enough.

Several days later, I had one more shot at the obstacle course. As I trotted out to the course with a timekeeper, I knew it was time to do or die. I had to make the time…had to beat this thing, or the life alternatives were too ugly to contemplate. We walked up to the course and there it stood in all its naked glory. The sand was gone. Every grain of sand had been removed, courtesy of Hurricane Frederic. Washed away, blown away, whatever, the sand was gone. In its absence, the obstacles appeared taller, but the running surface was a beautiful, consistent, hardpan of clay. It looked, for all the world, like a running track.

The time-keeper and I looked at the course, and then at each other. For a moment I expected to be told…”Sorry, can’t run it until the sand is back”, but my time-keeper just shrugged and said, “Let’s get this over with.”

So, I ran and I passed. I made the time. No records were set, and I was a bit more careful on my landings than usual, but make no mistake about it, the course was fast…like a paved fairway. I made my time, once, which was what the Navy required.

Other challenges would follow (who knew I got airsick?), but there’s no doubt in my mind that Frederic was the natural disaster that saved my career. As I’ve progressed through a post-Navy career in high-tech product, marketing and sales, there have been other disasters, and if I’ve looked hard enough, each one has vacuumed the figurative sand away from another opportunity.

In the late 90’s, I was a senior leader at a thriving Internet company purchased by a pre-scandal WorldCom. Even then, WorldCom carried with it a premonition of disaster, giving several of us the inspiration to jump ship and start a software company. Much later, my employer was again acquired by another southern telecom with a burning desire for growth. Eighteen months in, I lost my political cover when my boss retired, leaving room for my new boss to unceremoniously and quite publicly dump me by the curb. That rejection, which certainly felt disastrous at the time, led to a new career as a management advisor and leadership coach.

So, 36 years on, our son is the bearded owner of a ridiculously cool sports bar in Philadelphia, my wife Rebecca and I are pursuing our dreams on a farm in northern Virginia, and my time in a Navy cockpit is a fading memory. If Frederic hadn’t happened, perhaps I would have found another path through the sand, or maybe we’d have ended up here anyway, but I’m left with the feeling that Frederic was a disaster that saved my career.

So, the next time you hear that rumble or your spider senses tingle, remember: sometimes a disaster is just what’s needed to clear your path.


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