Many years ago, I interviewed a medic who flew with Ornge, Ontario’s air ambulance service. My job was to write up a personal profile of him for the Ornge website.
In our brief phone call, he taught me a lesson in life and leadership that we can all use today.
I asked him what he does when his helicopter lands on a major highway where there’s been a horrific accident.
“The first thing I do happens just before we land. I try to assess from the air what’s going on below. How many vehicles were in the crash? Any on fire or exploded? How many people injured? Dead? How many police and firefighters?”
“Then the instant the pilot signals I can leave the helicopter after we’ve landed, I leap out. I don’t crawl out, I leap out and stride over to what looks like the person in charge. When I get close, I wave my arms for everyone to gather around and say: ‘Okay, everyone, let’s get to work.’ ”
“You’ve got to understand the irony here – and exploit it. To everyone else, I’m the guy who lands from the sky. I’m going to save the person who’s horribly injured on the road. But to me, I’m the guy who knows less than anyone else. I’m the last to arrive. What the hell do I know?”
“But they’re all looking at me when I step out of that helicopter. To them, I’m the sheriff. Most of them can’t actually do much by the time we land. The fire’s usually out, the highway’s blocked off.”
“I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve landed on highways dozens of times. I learned that what they’re looking for is someone to lead. They see me. They hear me and they follow me. After I say “let’s get to work,” I start assigning jobs. I never say “I”, always “We”, as in “We need to get our stretcher up against the truck.” Or “We need three guys to lift the gurney into the helicopter.”
“No one ever hangs back. No senior cop has ever said: ‘Hey, I’m in charge here.’
“Remember, I still know less than anyone else. But I do know my job is to get someone who’s been thrown from their car, or badly burned, or had their bones crushed onto a stretcher, and from there, onto the helicopter”.
“We’re usually on the ground for just a few minutes. Then we lift-off and are gone. It’s often hours or even days later before I learn all that happened in the crash.”
“Sure, my job was to pick up a badly injured person as quickly and safely as possible. But think how that would go if I crawled out of the helicopter and said:
“Could you please tell me who’s in charge? I’m going to need some help.”
Yesterday, I started listening to Erik Larson’s new book, The Splendid and the Vile, about Winston Churchill and how he rallied the British to ‘win’ at Dunkirk and to really win the Battle of Britain during the Blitz of World War II.
Back then, Britain’s chances of defeating the Nazi’s were about as good as ours would be on our way to a trauma unit in an Ornge helicopter.
What made all the difference was Churchill and especially his words. He knew the situation was hopeless. He knew that Britain and the British Empire would likely never survive. But he chose to believe that Britain could win. He chose to show optimism, and he ordered his colleagues to exhibit it, no matter how despairing they felt. As he said: “It does not seem to be much use being anything else.”
That air ambulance medic and Mr. Churchill share much in common.