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September 14, 2021

How 97 percent of leaders achieve the impossible

When a tragic mountain-climbing accident left me stranded on Mount Ruapehu in New Zealand, I turned to my faith and the leadership principles that I had been teaching as a university business professor to survive the longest night of my life. 

Alone, with temperatures plunging to -30 degrees Celsius and dressed only in a T-shirt and shorts, I first broke the night into five thousand five-second intervals. I decided to deal with only one interval at a time -- a strategy based on knowledge that effective leaders break big challenges into smaller, more manageable ones. Then, stepping back to see the bigger picture, I relied on vision, intuition, and faith to keep me alive. 

I emerged from this harrowing experience having cemented my belief that the principles fundamental to leadership are also key to tackling any challenge. One such principle is the art of correction.

Even in times of crises, there are opportunities to correct and learn. 

The answer to the following question contains a kernel of wisdom that has profound implications for leadership success: “On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon.  What percentage of time did this history-making rocket stay precisely on track?  People often guess numbers such as 99.9 %, 50% or 85%.”  Rarely have I met anyone who is aware that, according to NASA, the rocket was exactly on track for a mere 3% of the time it was in space.

For the vast majority of the journey, the rocket was “off track.” Had it not been corrected by means of the sophisticated computers down on earth at the Houston base, it wouldn’t have made history by landing. 

The humbling (yet encouraging) truth is that 97% of the time, leaders who are destined to make enormous contributions to the world are missing the mark.  Simply knowing this enables us to keep going even when things look very tough.  Leaders who achieve the seemingly impossible are flexible and adaptable and seek constant feedback, whether it’s from customers, team members or listening intuitively to themselves, in order to make the changes necessary to keep them on target. 

Goal accomplishment is the art of correction, not protection.
More real-life success stories, profiling the characteristics and strategies of leaders who have excelled amidst overwhelming challenges, can be found in Denis Shackel and Tara Bradacs book:  Five Seconds at a Time – How Leaders Can Make The Impossible Possible.

By Denis Shackel


Denis Shackel is head of Management Communications at the Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario, and a consultant for corporations throughout North America. His book 'Five Seconds at a Time' is currently available online and in bookstores.

Tara Bradacs is a graduate of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. She has worked in leadership development and labour relations and has been a strategic human resources consultant in both the private and the public sector. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.



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