Relationships create resilience

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 26, 2006
Filed in Anecdotes

I remember a great story told by Margaret Wheatley about how the US Federal Aviation Authority successfully landed all the planes in US airspace on September 11. I was searching around for it today and found it. Here is it:

On September 11th, as we all know, every plane was grounded. It took four hours for them to clear the skies, and during that time, they had to continue to assess whether terrorists were controlling any other plane. There was one incident in Alaska where the pilot was Korean and was giving the wrong code, so they thought he was in trouble, but he wasn’t. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) had to land 5,000 planes. Never been done before. No preparation, no simulations, no training. The person who was head of the FAA, was new to the job; it was his first day on the job, and I remember that he said, “In the interview for this job I asked, ”Will I have complete authority to make decisions?” and they said, “Yes.” He never thought that his very first day would be one where he was going to buy the farm on if it didn’t work. He gave the order. Several airlines, like Delta, had already asked all their planes to land. Many of the planes had to land at small airports. Small airports have air traffic controllers, rulebooks, and well-trained people, but there was no rulebook that covered this kind of circumstance, so they had to invent or disregard procedures. Everyone was being asked to be courageous by going against the book. And they all did it very well. It was a monumental task.

Later, they realized that the reason they succeeded was the strength of their relationships. They trusted each other as they were communicating across the country. There was a real esprit décor; they were smart. They could make new policies. They could make up rules that worked in the moment. So after Sept. 11, as any good organization would do, the FAA wanted to learn why this had worked so well. But of course, being a federal agency, they wanted to learn what worked so they could put it into a rulebook. After its research, the FAA did something extraordinarily brave. They decided not to write a rulebook about the incident; they understood that what had made it work was people’s intelligence, dedication, and relationships. That’s a lesson we all need to learn right now. The only way through an uncertain time is to have a certainty about your values, your purpose, and a certainty about each other. We call it trust, but it’s even more than that. It’s knowing, as my friend’s daughter who plays rugby says, “When you’re moving a ball down the field, you can’t see the people right behind you, but you may need to pass the ball to them, so they just keep signaling to you and they just keep staying with you, with you, with you.”

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. ben says:

    Very nice article..
    But I guess you meant “esprit d’équipe” (team spirit) instead of “esprit décor” (???)

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