Several weeks ago, I was was on the way home from a business trip in a 19-seat twin engine plane. As we were leveling off at cruising altitude, we heard a horrible metallic crunching noise and the plane started lurching. Then we saw smoke and flames coming out of the exhaust of the right engine. (Yes, I was scared!)
The engine immediately shut down, the plane stabilized, and we flew on with a single engine. The pilot made an emergency landing in Albany.
I spoke with the pilot afterwords, and it turns out that he knew much less than we passengers did about the failure. What he saw was a sudden drop in oil pressure on the instrument panel, which caused him to shut down the engine. The metallic crunching noise and the smoke and flames were news to him – he said he’d tell maintenance.
The pilot’s leap of faith was in the instrument panel alone. That no doubt saved us, but it’s fascinating that he knew so little.
Business leaders also make leaps of faith in various numerical instruments that relay information to them about the health of the business. The difference is that a company is not a machine like an aircraft engine – it is a complex collection of people, processes, and physical circumstances that are highly variable. As a result, the CEO’s dashboard is much less reliable than the pilot’s. We see the results of that every day.