“Losing your head in a crisis is a good way to become the crisis.” C.J. Redwine
Dealing with Bad News
It wasn’t what I wanted to hear.
We had just landed a large order for a new product and we didn’t have the parts to build it. Our engineering manager was briefing the head of sales and me. He estimated it would take 10 weeks before we received the critical parts. The problem was that the customer needed the product next week.
Sales had worked hard to book this order. It was from a customer we had been pursuing for months. If we failed to deliver, we would likely lose this customer forever. The stakes couldn’t be higher. I was frustrated but I was trying not to show it. I asked a few questions to explore various options and then it happened, our sales manager lost his cool. He said, “this is totally unacceptable!” and he stormed off.
Even though I agreed with him, I stayed calm and continued to ask questions. I finally asked the engineering manager to send me the drawings so I could consider other options. Little did I know, I was exhibiting a leadership trait called temperance.
The Importance of Temperance
Plato defined temperance as “moderation in action, thought, or feeling; restraint.” Temperance is voluntary self-restraint from excessive anger or craving for something. It shows up in the form of calmness and self-control. It’s the idea of holding back on your natural reaction to circumstances. Temperance is one of the four cardinal virtues and it is an important leadership trait. In fact, it probably saved the world.
In 1962, during the peak of the Cuban Missile Crisis, one Soviet Submarine Officer, Vasily Arkhipov, displayed the ultimate example of leadership temperance.
The Fog of War
Arkhipov was the second-in-command of the Soviet Foxtrot-class diesel submarine B-59 and the commander of the small submarine flotilla operating near Cuba. On October 27th, B-59 was detected by several U.S. Navy destroyers. As was the protocol at the time, the U.S. ships started dropping signaling depth charges to get the Soviet boat to come to the surface and identify themselves.
Since B-59 had been operating at a deep depth, they were out of radio contact with Moscow and unaware of the status of the standoff with the U.S. Navy. The commanding officer of B-59 assumed the war had begun and they were under attack. He began planning a counter-attack which would include launching a nuclear-tipped torpedo at the U.S. fleet.
Soviet procedures required three officers to approve the launch of a nuclear weapon. The commanding officer, the second-in-command, and the political officer all had to agree to launch the deadly weapon. Both the commanding officer and the political officer thought they were at war so they pressured Arkhipov to approve the launch of the nuclear torpedo.
The conditions in the boat were grim. B-59 had been submerged for far too long and the battery was losing power. The air conditioning had failed and it was close to 140 degrees in some areas on the boat. In the stale, stifling conditions on the sub, Arkhipov was faced with a tough decision. He could yield to the pressure and fire the torpedo which would likely lead to WWIII or he could maintain self-restraint and calmly think through the problem.
In an act of extreme temperance, Arkhipov calmly ordered B-59 to surface and establish radio contact with Moscow where they quickly learned they were not at war. Arkhipov’s calmness and self-control in the midst of dire circumstances likely saved the world from an all-out nuclear war.
Calm Under Pressure
As a leader, we are often faced with tough decisions and it’s easy to cave to peer pressure, get caught up in the moment, or become emotional. Our people, however, need us to be calm and exhibit temperance and self-restraint. We need to remain calm under pressure and make the right decisions for our organizations.
“Remaining calm in the midst of chaos is a superpower.” Clyde Lee Dennis
In my case, I was able to think through our parts shortage problem and, after talking with our manufacturing engineering manager, we developed a plan to rework some existing inventory to meet our needs. In the end, we would be able to produce the product and meet our customer’s needs.
You may never be called on to make a decision like Vasily Arkhipov but you will face many difficult situations where you will need to exhibit self-restraint. Temperance is an important leadership trait that allows us to remain calm, cool, and rational in the face of uncertain and chaotic circumstances. Temperate leadership is critical especially during times of uncertainty. People want a calm and steady hand on the rudder during a rough storm.
Practicing temperance can help you to be a better leader and, you never know, it might just save the world.
Learn more about how to be a more effective leader in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.