Hello Leader,

I am writing this Key flying at 36,000 feet, just north of Iceland. After trying for five days to escape Europe with numerous flight cancellations, I am finally heading home to Seattle. What an adventurous journey! Who would have thought a volcano in Iceland could shutdown Europe. For a few days Europe was filled with refugees, a surreal picture from another time. Life is more dramatic than fiction and mythology put together. First, Iceland’s economy and banking system melted down. Next, its volcano is spewing ash and shutting down Europe. Maybe this lends itself as a metaphor and a lesson for something more.

The Air Force brief is, “It’s the one you don’t see that will shoot you down.” The Black Swan message is, “Beware of the trap of preparing for the last swan (crisis) you saw. The next one will be different. Unexpected.” That’s why it’s called a Black Swan. The entire aviation system was caught unprepared. No one rehearsed a volcanic eruption shutting down Europe’s air space. There were no decision-making models, no criteria and no clear data to guide the authorities.

We are the sapient innovative specie, but when a complex system meets its limits, things get chaotic. Couple this with “Do not take any risk” (attorneys’ persuasion) and, “Guess as you go” (politicians’ persuasion) and you have millions of people stranded, desperately seeking to escape the continent. I am not criticizing the decision to close air space. I am fascinated by how we respond to unforeseen events for which we have no readymade solution.

Here is what I have I learned on this trip:

  1. My first learning (for the 100th time) is captured best in paraphrasing the words of Aldous Huxley: Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.
  2. When the situation around you changes, the faster you are prepared to let go of your set plans and shift into a neutral openness, the quicker you will adapt, find solutions and new ideas and be ready to move forward.
  3. When people are smiling and laughing, they are learning, developing and adapting to change in the fastest way. Humor is the greatest medicine given to us by the gods.
  4. You must focus on what you can control and you must take care of yourself first. Trying to fight what is not under your control is a form of insanity, or it leads to it. In the last key, we identified these as the first two commandments to thriving in an unpredictable and ambiguous world. In this adventure I had to walk my own talk.
  5. Decision making is the art of appraising alternatives. In most situations you have incomplete information. Analysis, intuition and guts come into it. But you must begin with the available data. Generate as much data as you can. Listen to everyone else and then listen internally and make a decision. I made two decisions based on limited data and uncertain outcome. In retrospect, I made the best choices and I made the best out of an unpredictable situation.
  6. Strategy begins with clarity of purpose and an overarching vision. You must be clear about what is essential. Most complex situations can be boiled down to three or four central themes and objectives. For example, transforming your organization, or in my case, getting home, is about embracing and concretizing a vision in action. But both begin with getting to the right terminal and catching the flight that is headed to where you need to go.
  7. Money is great. It can buy most things. But true friends and a network of support will provide what money cannot buy. Your resilience largely depends on your relationships, friends and support network. I have a number of support networks and a few special friends. They make me a better and more resilient person.
  8. The greatest medicine given to us after humor is the art of conversation. I’ve had rich conversations on this trip with good friends and with total strangers. I learn through conversations more than in any other way. Picture a fascinating discussion about the pros and cons of the European, Chinese and American systems and how they are likely to evolve. There are four of us in this conversation, three executives – German, Australian and American and myself an Israeli American consultant sharing a high-speed train ride from Amsterdam to Frankfurt.
  9. When people around you are stressed-out and you are able to spend rich quality time with friends, there is a new perspective about living to be found. In the middle of chaos you lead by becoming an island of clarity. We are on this Earth for our tour of duty, to make connection, to make meaning and to make it a better place. But we are not of this place. We are merely visitors, passersby, to give account, to learn, to participate and to transform ourselves and those we touch. Moments of connection are seeds of immortality. They are flickers from a greater unknown, blazing through into our localized consciousness, to remind and awaken us to a greater something else.
  10. Grace is ever-present. Blessings are pouring in abundantly. The work of prayer is to help remove hindrance; to enable blessings already given to come into full bloom. Here is my prayer today:
    “Let me meet at my best the opportunities afforded to me. Let me serve this moment in time intelligently and let me help my friends and the people I work with to forward their best futures. I shall not lose the treasure of living and serving even when the world does not conform to my plans; an unlived day is too big a price to pay. This day is blessed. It is the beginning of the rest of my tomorrows where I shall become all that I am meant to be.”
  11. Now it’s your turn. Turn the Key. Say a prayer for good things to come for you and for your loved ones.

    © Aviv Shahar