002 – World’s worst first day on the job

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 19, 2018
Filed in Business storytelling, Podcast

We’re reading The Power of Moments by Dan and Chip Heath and they talk about creating memorable first days. This episode features a story with a very memorable first day which you wouldn’t wish on anyone. And wrapped up in the story are insights about confidence, decision-making, the role of social networks and the limits of process and procedures. A terrific business story to share.


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Our story for today was sourced from: Margaret J. Wheatley. 2003. Leadership and the Power of Chaos. Presentation at Leadership & Learning: A Design Media Discussion Forum. 27 June. San Francisco.

For your story bank

Potential relevance statement: One of the best ways to respond to the unpredictable is to be well connected so you can get help.

It’s the turn of the 21st century.

New head of the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. is appointed

During his job interviewed he made sure he had decision making power. He did.

His first day was September 11, 2001.

He had to get 5000 planes out of the sky ASAP and they didn’t know is any others were controlled by terrorists.

It has never been done before. Rulebooks didn’t apply.

In four hours they got every plane on the group. Amazing.

After the event FAA did an after action review. What could they learn.

At first they thought they should create more policies and rules in case it happened again.

But then they discovered one the reasons they could ground all the planes was because the air traffic controllers were highly connected, they knew each other personally, they had trained together and kept in contact and on the day they helped each other out.

They phoned each other and asked favours. “Can you fit another 747 on your tarmac?” The little airports helped the big and vice versa.

The FAA concluded they needed to keep nurturing these networks.

Podcast transcript


So, welcome to Anecdotally Speaking, a podcast about business story-telling and it’s great to be back on episode 2, Mark. It seems like a whole week’s gone past.


We’re veritably cracking along. So, just to remind people why we do this podcast; we know every human being is a natural storyteller, but it is hard to do it in business. So, what we’re trying to do is to help you fill your pockets full of stories that you can use in a business setting but also give some insight into why these stories work or don’t and what business situations you can use them in.


You really need that repertoire, don’t you? So, you can tell them off the cuff when you need them as opposed to ‘gee, I need a story’.


And if you’ve got lots of stories then it just makes that task so much easier.


Indeed, so, I hear you’ve got a story for us, Mark. We’re looking forward to hearing it.


This is an event that occurred around the turn of the century and the source of it is Margaret Wheatley’s paper ‘Leadership and the Power of Chaos’. The new head of the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. was appointed.

And when he was going through the interview process one of the things he was very keen to understand was the extent to which he would have autonomy in decision making. So that if something happened would he have the authority to make a decision or would he have to go through layers and layers of bureaucracy in order to figure out what to do.

He was pretty confident that he could do the job and he was given the assurance that he would have the autonomy. And as it turned out his ability to make decisions and judgements was tested on his very first day.

His very first day as the head of the aviation authority was 9/11, so a heck of a first day. There was no policy, no rule book, no process for dealing with what happened on that day.


It was unprecedented.


And there were 5,000 planes in the air at the time and there was no idea about which ones were being controlled by terrorists and so he made the decision to ground the fleet, to ground every aircraft in U.S airspace. This had never been done before.


It’s unprecedented.


The normal procedures simply did not apply. They had to ignore the protocols and make it up as they went along doing whatever was necessary to safely land those planes and at the same time trying to ascertain which ones were being controlled by terrorists.

So, it’s an incredible task they undertook, and it took great courage as well because they were doing things that had never been done before. And they did it. In four hours they’d landed 5,000 aircraft.

There was not enough space at the normal airport, so the aircraft controllers were trying to ring their mates in different places, ‘can your runway handle a 737?’ and they did it. It was considered a major achievement to the extent that the FAA did a review afterwards to try and figure out exactly why it worked so they could put in place a protocol, so they could handle a similar situation in the future, to write the rule book on how to do this.

It was to the credit of the FAA. They quickly realised a rule book for how to do this was pointless because what had made this work was the professionalism and expertise of the individuals involved, the fact that they had an unprecedented circumstance, so they had autonomy but also they were really well connected, and they trusted each other.

Rather than write a new procedural process what they decided to do was build a web of effective relationships between all of these key people, building trust and their ability to make right decisions. They basically invested in getting more connection because they knew that would make the difference.


Wow, that’s such a great story. For me, one of the reasons that story resonates is that it’s such a memorable moment in our lifetime. We all know exactly where we were when that event occurred.

But we never think about the logistics and when you start to hear how difficult it was to make something like that actually happen, you realise that a phenomenal feat has occurred.

So, I think it was the numbers and how it resonates as something in our lifetime, an experience we’ve all had, that’s one of the key things.


So, firstly, the impact and then having the details; 5,000 aircraft in four hours.


I think too when you start off and you’re not giving it away that it’s 9/11. You’ve got this guy starting out on his new job, hoping he’s got this autonomy, and then the first day—that’s the reveal. First day, oh my god, it’s 9/11.

I like that you don’t really understand the context until you’re about a third into the story.


Yeah, people are wondering why is this interesting and then suddenly it becomes ‘now I understand it’.


I remember someone saying to me once that one of the driving forces behind a good story is when the listener, the audience is asking themselves the question; what’s happening or what’s going to happen?

If you’re sitting in the audience going, ‘what’s going to happen next?’ –that’s the energy pulling people through that story. So, I think the beginning of that story works really well because you’re getting then into that mind-set of asking that question and all of sudden that occurs and you’re asking the next question. And what happens next? And so, it just draws you through the story.


One of the things I like about that story is that it breaks the script of the importance of process. Now we all know process is important but it’s equally true that process doesn’t help is solve a whole range of problems and yet our go-to response most of the time is to write a process even though it’s a complex situation where nothing is going to occur the way you planned.

The fact that the FAA decided not to invest in a new process but to build the connections between the air traffic controllers breaks the script. It’s a surprise.


Yeah it’s a surprise, absolutely. Now just getting a sense of the numbers, I think that’s part of it. 7,000 planes in the air—that’s how I remember it but what was the number you actually said?




5,000, yeah but these are big numbers right? So that shows the enormity of the feat.

Yeah, they’re some of the key things but it would be interesting now to talk about some of the business points that come out of this.


Off the bat.


For me, the big one is around the importance of connection and networks. That’s how you respond to complex and messy things where there’s no right answer. Just the fact that the FAA decided to invest in keeping people connected is a phenomenally adaptive approach because they don’t know what the next weird terrorist attack is going to be.

It’s certainly not going to be what it was before so having a process is a total waste of time. To me that‘s the big point in that story. If I was to say another point it’s that humans have a phenomenal ability to respond.

Here’s this guy walking into something that no one has ever seen before and yet with a great team, sense of calm and direction this guy was able to show that courage that was required on that day to make the big calls.

Imagine making the call; we’re going to ground all aircraft.


Yeah, it’s huge.


The impact on the economy, the chaos of commuters, it’s just absolutely crazy so that’s a big call. So, they’re two things. Are there any others that come out for you?


You hinted at the big one which is that in business connectivity is a huge productivity improver. People that are involved in getting organisations more connected around communities of practice—you hear that term in the knowledge management field.

This is a great example that highlights the importance of connectivity in helping an organisation deal with extraordinary but also day to day. Working for a consulting firm 20 odd years ago one of our consultants over in Western Australia, his client came out and dais, ‘what’s the defence standard for x?’

The guy didn’t know but he was connected the project management community within our consulting firm and he just sent an email to members of that community and within 10 minutes he had a definitive answer from a guy working in the project office that was working on the new defence standard and so he was able to go to the client and say, ‘look our current standard is this but I suggest we wait and make a decision about what standard we adopt for this project because in three weeks there is going to be a new standard’.

And the client goes, ‘that’s amazing, you know more about my business than I do’. Only connectivity allowed that to happen.


How would you use a story like this? I’ve actually used it a number of times. I remember having this lunch with the head of the Country Fire Authority here in Victoria and the head of strategy at the Melbourne Fire Brigade a few years back and the head of the CFA was saying, ‘look, we’ve got 1,000s and 1,000s of volunteers working for us. What we need to do is set up a best practice data base’.

You can imagine the groan I had when I heard the phrase ‘best practice database’.


I can image.


So, I thought to myself, the thing is if I said to him, ‘quite frankly your best practice database is not going to get you what you want’, we’d then be in an argument. You don’t win an argument like that.


With somebody who is so experienced and so senior.


And also, they’ve thought about it a lot so it’s much better to go to a pull strategy rather than a push strategy. So, instead of arguing with him I said, ‘let me just give you something else to think about’ and I told him the 9/11 story.

And at the end he goes, ‘oh my god, we’ve got one of the biggest networks of fire-fighters in the country. We need to make more use of that connectivity’. He was working it out for himself and to me that’s the beauty of this sort of approach. You give them the material to start to work out some of these things themselves.


And so, in terms of the use of this story in business, it’s a fantastic example of the art of influence in that this person’s got a strongly held view about having a best practice database and tackling it front on. Fighting against that view will often just make it worse.

He’ll be defending his view and reinforcing it. So, it’s a great example of how you can overcome that by an influence strategy, a pull strategy where you tell the story and suddenly he’s figuring it out for himself and he replaces his old story about the best practice database with the 9/11 story.


That’s it, with a new story.


That’s a fantastic example of how to use that. A similar experience where a large organisation project management office—they had a team of people writing processes for everything and all the project team members were unhappy to say the least, that everything was being regimented.

And when they heard the 9/11 story they went, ’that’s totally what we need to think more about in our organisation and less about the process. It’s funny though because one of the people in the room was the head of the process group and she goes, ‘well I’ve heard, and I’m not convinced.’

So, it’s a very useful source of influence but it’s not going to work in every circumstance.


Gary Klein, the psychologist, the father of naturalistic decision making, he once said, ‘insight is when you unexpectedly come to a better story’.  And this is what these people have done: unexpectedly, they’ve got this better story. And they’ve gone, ‘my god, that’s it, that makes sense to me’.

And so, this is about insight. And one story doesn’t always work. Sometimes you have to tell three, four stories and then you’ll find the one that you didn’t even imagine was going to connect connects with the person and all of a sudden they get that insight and see things from a different perspective.


Are there other business points that we could draw from the 9/11 story?


I think there’s something there about having that belief in yourself. That leader who came in and really wanted that decision making power; he got tested more than anyone could imagine on his first day, but he had that belief and self-confidence and he got off to a very good outcome considering the situation that he was facing. Perhaps that’s another us of the story.


And that triggers another one for me, which is about the importance of autonomy. Skilled people, when they’re motivated to do a good job, when they’re given autonomy, they almost always do the right thing.

And yet we try to control so much what they do that we remove their autonomy. So that’s a great example. In this case it wasn’t a choice to give them autonomy; the chaotic situation they found themselves in left no other choice. And so, they had autonomy and they exercised it with immense professionalism.


Yes, indeed. So, what’s the wrap up if you were to summarise what we’ve covered here? So, what are some of the key things that we draw out of this story?


For me, some of the key things are the fact that it’s related to 9/11, one of the most impactful events in our history adds to the power and effectiveness of that story tremendously. The details—it’s important to get the facts right when you’re telling a story so 5,000 aircraft, four hours etc.

The point you made about the reveal when it was the 11th of September, when that became obvious and the fact that it breaks the script, which is that we need to have processes for everything so those are some of the things that I think really make that story work.


Out of ten, what would you rate this?


I would give this one a 9.


Fantastic. I’m going to give it an 8 because it is a very good story and I have seen it work beautifully in terms of changing people’s minds and this is a robust story that you can use out there and have a big impact.


And if you haven’t done it already, this is one that can go straight into your story banks.

And by the way, when we say story bank we really believe that it’s important that you have a repository, a place where you store your stories so they’re available to you when you need them.


We’ll do an episode on story banks at some stage.


Lovely idea.


Thanks guys. It’d be great if you could go into iTunes and rate our podcast, share with your friends—our Twitter account is just @anecdote. You can find me at @shawncallahan  and Mark you are…




And please send us comments, questions—very happy to get the conversation going and help spread the word about business storytelling. Until next week, story on.


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About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one 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:

3 Responses to “002 – World’s worst first day on the job”

  1. Dave Stokes Says:

    Talk about agility! Guess they skipped the induction session at the FAA that day… Good story, well told chaps

  2. Adele Fedorak Says:

    Great story! When I was listening to it, it struck me as a good lesson to get clarity on role and responsibility at the very beginning.
    Love that you guys have started podcasting! Well done.

  3. Ronnie Dunetz Says:

    Lovely story, thanks!

    I think it would be best to get the name of the guy- “New head of the Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. is appointed”. I can see telling this with some internal dialogue,that the director would have in his head, “I am on my first day here and now what am I going to do…”

    This is a very powerful story about having to learn the importance of flexibility, when to think for yourself, the ability to know when the rules just don’t apply, as you mentioned. It also gives a message that “we want our leaders to know that you will sometimes have to lead by virtue of what you have in you and not what the rulebook is saying to you….it gives a message of “thinking like an entrepreneur” even if you are a leader of a huge organization. As you guys have said so nicely, ‘breaking the script” !

    There is a second message here that can be applied and developed from this story is “human connectivity”, that is a different direction. From connectivity you can move into collaboration into “collective intelligence”, “wisdom of crowds” and “together we are better”, even a good lead into networking and its importance, I think.


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