What I learned about leadership after surviving a plane crash
I’m not supposed to be alive, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. On the afternoon of December 12, 2014, I was flying a private plane back from Kansas City to Springfield and it felt like business as usual. I was consulting with a group of home health executives and making the 45-minute trip weekly. I had earned my pilot’s license 15 years prior and accumulated my fair share of flight hours.
I detected weather coming in so I asked my three colleagues to be at the airport at 4 p.m. so we could make it back to Springfield before dark. They showed up about 4:30 p.m. and visibility wasn’t that bad, so I thought we could takeoff. We were in a Piper 32, single-engine aircraft, that seats six people though we only had four. We set off on our initial climb and got above the clouds just in time to see the most beautiful sunset.
We made it to Springfield and started our descent in lockstep with the trailing sun. We were on an instrument plan because of weather and that meant we could only come down so far before the control tower would turn us loose to land. We hovered at that level when the controller said we should be able to see land, but all I could see were clouds in front of me.
We requested an instrument approach to the regional airport. They rerouted us to try and find a hole in the mass of condensed water vapor. We finally broke free from the clouds to see a gorgeous runway, all lit up, tempting me to land. However, our cars were at the small downtown airport, so I told the control tower we were going to divert and land there instead.
Between the two airports, we got a little too low and clipped a lightning rod sticking out of a cellphone tower. It hit right on the propeller, knocking six inches off the prop. What we didn’t know at the time was that impact also put a two-foot gouge in the left wing which released all the fuel out of that side.
The engine was running rough with surges and stalls, but I could see the airport surrounded by city. I remember thinking, “Okay, we’re going to make it.”
Then the engine died.
There we were – gliding about 400 feet above the ground with three miles to go. All I could see were lights over a bustling downtown Springfield when I shifted my focus to survival. “Find a dark spot and land this plane,” I thought. A dark spot might not be a heavily populated area. I found my dark spot and that’s when God took over.
We caught the top of a couple of trees and that slowed the plane down. We went right over a house and just barely missed a roof. Then came the big impact when our right wing sheared off the top of a tree and it spun the plane around. Instead of nose diving, we hit the ground in a vacant lot at a glancing blow. That touchdown probably saved our lives.
“Is everybody okay?” was the first thing I said. I knew I was hurt. The two passengers behind me said they were fine and evacuated. The passenger beside me couldn’t stand up because his feet were caught under the engine. The engine had catapulted back after impact. The door was on his side so I couldn’t get out of the plane either. That’s when we noticed the smell of leaking fuel.
Help was there within minutes. Turns out, a crash landing over rush-hour traffic in the middle of downtown Springfield will get noticed! First responders used the jaws of life to cut the top of the plane and peel it back like a can of sardines. They took my passenger to one hospital and me to another. He spent the night and was released the next day. I couldn’t move the first several days after the crash because of all the broken pieces. I spent Christmas in the hospital and was there for almost four weeks.
When I was discharged, my wife set up a makeshift hospital bedroom downstairs where I stayed for months. I needed three surgeries to heal nine fractures and six months of therapy which meant I was out of work for quite a while. I went back to work on a walker determined to recover. I’d been down this road before because it wasn’t my first brush with death. About 20 years before the plane crash, I battled cancer complete with nine months of chemotherapy, radiation, and ultimately, remission.
Don’t turn help away
I am often asked how I survived these major challenges. I find myself reflecting on survival mode with executive coaching clients in my new role leading a Vistage CEO peer advisory group. I believe it takes the same chops to survive a plane crash as it does to run a business.
I owned an advertising agency for more than 30 years and understand the challenges executives face – the doubts, struggles, and fear of failure. The motivation to attempt the seemingly impossible. The guts to venture outside your comfort zone and lead during difficult times such as a global pandemic. Even though we’re all tired of hearing about COVID-19, it’s still driving much of the conversation among CEOs.
I attribute my survival to not facing challenges alone. During the plane crash, I had the help of a control tower, my passengers, and first responders. With cancer, I relied on faith, family, and friends. I’m someone with only a rural high school education, who became the general manager of a radio station at 25. I’ve had the great fortune of working with hundreds of mentors, companies, and clients who gave me the courage to keep opening doors.
It is often difficult to admit you need assistance and accept help, especially in a professional setting. The CEO is typically the one serving others, doing the problem-solving, and putting on the Band-Aid. Yet all of us go through tough times, especially now. The challenges I’m hearing from those I coach include finding quality people or having to let the ones they have go – a few are worried about paying bills. These are huge lifeblood issues as opposed to fears around beating competitors, squeezing out a little more profit, or finding a different vendor.
When I interview accomplished, high-integrity leaders to join my Vistage group, I ask them if they can be vulnerable. I want them to be able to come to a meeting and say, “I’m going through something right now” or “I’ve got a big decision coming up and I need advice.” That is a big step for many people, especially CEOs, because it’s hard to let your guard down.
Asking for help was never easy for me. My wife likes to tell the story about how upon my cancer diagnosis we said to everyone, “We’re good. We’ve got everything under control. We’re fine.” But nine months into it, we were tired. We could sure use some help, but we told everybody we didn’t need it – over and over. Luckily, we had some persistent folks who stuck around even though we had turned them away.
Improving your odds
I’m grateful to be at a point in my career with more to give than ever before. I’m proud of the Vistage group of non-competing CEO peers that I’m assembling in Springfield for the sole purpose of lifting each other up as we climb. Would you rather face every challenge alone or have 15 diverse perspectives to help you achieve more and make the best decisions possible?
For example, one of my Vistage members was recently struggling with a big decision. We started asking questions and realized he’d already made the decision. His real challenge was explaining it to his staff. The more questions we asked, the more he knew he was fighting the wrong battle. That’s the fun part of a Vistage group – you have no idea where processing an issue will lead when it’s driven by the power of community.
Success comes from giving. It’s the reciprocal nature that makes each Vistage group most effective. You might be the leader uplifting others one week and the one reaching out for a hand another time. I don’t recommend a plane crash to teach this lesson. I’m grateful to still be around to share it with you instead.