by John Baldoni

Situational Awareness 101

Oct 08, 20076 mins
IT Leadership

Situational awareness--knowing where you are, what you can do and how to do it--is a vital to leadership skill. Here's how to hone your own.

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.

Context. A leader must know what he or she is up against—that is, what forces are shaping your world and your decisions. Who or what is pushing for a decision? Is it a competitor? Is it your boss? Is it your community or is it a genuine need? Determining the factors pushing for the decision is vital to making the decision. For example, if you are challenged to reduce costs, you need to consider what to cut and why. Is overhead the problem? Or are you overstaffed? And if you are overstaffed, whom can you cut without reducing productivity? At the same time, do you have the right people in the right jobs? Are they properly trained?

Conundrums may arise—that is, you may have to reduce some headcount but add people with different skills. Knowing the context of your decision will help you make the right choices.

Circumstance. It is vital to consider the unfolding situation. Life is not static; it is fluid, and therefore whatever a leader does must be framed within variables. Ask yourself: What is changing now and what could change in the future?

For example, when you decide to introduce a new product, that product—unless it is totally revolutionary—will face “me-too” competition. What’s more, it could face circumstances related to economic and market conditions. Projecting launch dates in the future is good from an engineering standpoint, but no one knows what the market will be like six to 12 to 24 months into the future. Circumstances may be very different.

Consequence. Decisions have outcomes. Those outcomes will dictate what a leader does. Also keep in mind that failure to decide is a consequence. Good leaders who push decision making to the front line are those leaders who want their people to be accountable as well as responsible for outcomes.

For example, in customer service, it is front-liners who maintain and monitor the pulse of the customer. Who better to consider what’s best for the customer? Organizations put dollar limits on decision making, yes, but it is the person who faces the customer who makes the first call. Other decisions, such as capital spending, organizational transformation and product development, involve higher stakes because the consequences are greater. Those decisions are for people paid to make them—the senior leadership team.

Gain perspective

Some situations are so multi-dimensioned that these three C’s are not enough. You must add perspective from a trusted associate. Knowing what you don’t know can have major consequences, as it almost did with Neil Armstrong when he was a civilian research pilot flying the hottest rocket plane of its time, the X-15.

No hotshot pilot like Chuck Yeager who flew more by instinct, Armstrong was methodical and deliberate. He was an engineer by training and working on his master’s in aeronautical engineering at USC. But he was not just a by-the-book flier; he also had flown combat missions during the Korean War.

Shortly after the death of his baby daughter, Armstrong took the X-15 up to 200,000 feet and then experienced some technical difficulties that forced him to put the craft down in a dry lake bed. A few days later, testing the conditions of a supposedly dry lake bed, Armstrong got his T-33 trainer stuck in the mud. And shortly afterward he made a hard landing in an F-104 that damaged the fuselage and caused the plane to lose hydraulic power. He landed safely, however. Coincidences or bad luck, perhaps, but as explained in his biography, First Man, Armstrong was mourning. His normally sharp mind was dulled with layers of grief that perhaps he did not realize were there. Fortunately Armstrong recovered—so well, in fact, that he qualified for astronaut training and seven years later became the first man to walk on the moon.

Situational awareness is critical for leaders. Ignoring the facts or blindly pursuing goals may end with disastrous consequences. Sometimes the situation seems as if it is illustrated in sharp relief; you know what must be done and you do it. Other times the situation is opaque; you make your way forward by instinct and feel, always cognizant 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.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as nonprofits, including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker and author of six books on leadership, the most recent being How Great Leaders Get Great Results. Visit his leadership resource website at