Now I’ve gained your interest, let me explain why I believe that one of the most important attributes required of fighter pilots, ‘Situational Awareness’, is as pertinent to businesses and organisations as it is in air warfare.
What is Situational Awareness? Simply put, it is knowing what is going on around you. This explanation is succinct, and applies to both military and civilian situations. Fighter pilots and other military personal have used the term for decades. They live and breathe it. Without it, they would lose the fight, literally. In everyday situations, all aircrew require Situational Awareness in order to conduct their tasks, and to fly safely. The better they are in gaining it, the more effective they are in achieving their aims and staying alive. In my opinion, Situational Awareness is the crucial factor in warfare. Having the correct and appropriate information, and the required skills and training to assess it, allows for the correct decisions to be made.
Understanding the implications of what is happening in any given situation (having Situational Awareness) is crucial in so many walks of life. In warfare, Situational Awareness generally means the view of the whole air and ground picture, including not only the location, but also the likely future activity of both friendly and enemy forces. Situational Awareness, or the lack of it, has played a significant part in aerial combat since its evolution during the First World War. My own research indicates that, in approximately 80 per cent of air-to-air combat engagements, the lack of adequate Situational Awareness appears to be have been a fairly constant metric in losses, not only in actual combat, but in simulated kills in training flying as well.
An internationally recognised expert on Situational Awareness in all its guises is Mica Endsley. In Theoretical Underpinnings of Situation Awareness: A Critical Review, Endsley defines a three-level model of Situational Awareness: Perception (what is happening), Comprehension (what does it mean), Projection (what should I do about it). This three-level model is as applicable in civilian life as it is in air warfare. In both spheres of life, excellent Situational Awareness should lead to ‘Safe Success’.
But so what? Why is this skill so valued by fighter aircrew pertinent to civilian organisations? Senator John McCain was a US Navy fighter pilot, who was shot down on a mission during the Vietnam War. He rather candidly explains that his warning systems showed that a surface-to-air missile (SAM) had locked on to his plane, but he thought he knew better. He was certain that he could finish his bombing run and evade the SAM. That split-second decision cost him five and a half years of his life in a North Vietnamese prison – the ‘Ho Chi Minh Hilton’!
The questions a fighter pilot must ask in combat are complex and varied but come down to knowing where you are, what you can do and how you can do it. Understanding all three is what gives you Situational Awareness. McCain’s error in comprehension led to a failed projection, despite the perception provided by his warning systems. Pushing the limits is fine if you truly comprehend those limits, but sometimes, as with McCain, you push too far and pay for it; the other danger is not being aware enough of the situation and failing to act. Both can be very costly.
In his book, Hard Calls, written with Mark Salter, McCain explores how leaders make decisions, in particular the tough decisions, which require courage, determination and something else—Situational Awareness. A sound sense of Situational Awareness is vital to leadership decision-making. A leader must be able to Perceive, Comprehend and Project at all times. For fighter pilots, these three elements may merge within seconds; for business leaders, these situations may unfold over an extended period. Notwithstanding, these fundamental principles are worthy of consideration by business leaders and others who deal with constant change and complexity.
As it is for fighter pilots, I believe Situational Awareness is also critical for business leaders. Ignoring the facts or blindly pursuing objectives may end with disastrous consequences. Sometimes the situation is so obvious (or so you believe) you know what must be done. Sometimes the situation is vague; you progress by instinct, always aware that you are never totally in command. When it comes to leadership decision-making, the latter is more often the case, and for that reason, tough decisions require tough calls. These decisions need not be based on any biased, or indeed wrong, information if the decision-maker takes the proper approach. There are proven Structured Analytical Techniques and processes available to help with improving your Situational Awareness, leading to better decision-making, but that is for another article...