Situational Awareness 101

Situational Awareness 101

Fighter pilots have it. CIOs need it. Without a sense of situational awareness--knowing where you are, what you can do and how to do it--a leader is flying blind when it comes to decision making.

His avionics showed that the missiles had locked on to his plane, but the pilot knew better. He was certain that he could finish his bombing run and evade the missiles. That split-second decision cost him five and a half years of his life in a North Vietnamese prison.

The pilot is John McCain, and this personal story comes from his newest book, Hard Calls, written with Mark Salter. The book explores how leaders make decisions, in particular the tough decisions, which require guts, determination and something else-situational awareness.

Determining where you are

McCain confesses that naval aviators always believed that they had invented the concept of situational awareness. The questions a 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. Pushing the limits is fine but sometimes, as with McCain's collision with a SAM missile, you push too far and pay for it. That's one pitfall; the other is not being aware enough of the situation. Both can be costly.

A sound sense of situational awareness is vital to leadership decision making. A leader must know context (what is happening), circumstance (what has happened) and consequence (what could happen) at all times. For pilots, these three factors may converge within seconds; for CIOs, these situations may unfold over days and months. Nonetheless, these underlying principles are worthy of exploration by CIOs and others who deal with constant change and complexity. Let's take them one at a time.

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