Friday, January 23, 2009

The Weakest Link

I was in an international airport a couple of days ago when I noticed that air crews at this airport do not have to undergo the same scrutiny of security that most of us do (perhaps this is common - I don't know).  It caused me to think of the billions of dollars we spend on airline security every year while in actuality,  our security comes down to how honest and stable a few air crews are (by far the minority of people in the sky at any given moment) and the people who screen us.

While we are fortunate that by far the majority of the fine folks that work for airlines and airport security are good, stable, honest people, it demonstrates how the strongest of systems still depends on the strength of the weakest link.  Before one says "but things never happen with air crews", think of the few but high profile cases where air crews broke down, including an incident a year or so ago when an Air Canada copilot needed to be physically restrained by crew and passengers on an overseas flight because of some mental duress experienced during the flight or the depressed Egypt Air relief pilot who took his aircraft and all of its passengers out of the sky off the eastern seaboard of the US back in the 90's.  Canadians also remember when baggage handlers in Toronto placed bombs on Air India flights.  The weakest link.

The US Airways plane that made a miraculous landing in the Hudson River a little while ago with no lives lost crashed because both engines ingested birds on takeoff.  A multi-ton, multimillion dollar aircraft brought down by a couple of birds.  The weakest link.

These thoughts then got my brain to thinking about the weakest link in a number of things in society.

John Thain, the former CEO of Merrill Lynch who was credited with keeping Merrill together long enough to be acquired by Bank of America resigned in disgrace today.  It was discovered that his lavish lifestyle, including a $1.2 million dollar office renovation, took place as his company suffered an organization-sinking loss and many employees and ordinary citizens lost everything they have.  A great, storied organization lost to the weakest link - poor leadership in Thain and those who came before him.

The weakest link in anything is something that seems to be a taboo subject or something buried under the notion of "what are the odds of that REALLY happening".

It reminds me of a former insurance client of mine who once owned the largest reinsurance market in the world.  Reinsurance is the business of covering the risk of other insurance carriers.  At one point, by way of reinsurance, this company insured most of Florida and Hawaii.  The regulators thought "This is a safe business - what is the probability that two places so far apart could be hit at the same time in a catastrophic way".  The weakest link here?  The belief that statistically improbable things don't need to be worried about so a risk mitigation plan is not necessary.  In the early 90's, Hurricane Andrew wiped out a good bit of southern Florida, Hawaii was hammered by a number of storms and the statistically improbable event occurred, putting this once revered insurance company out of business.

Want another example along these lines?  Think about Wall Street in the last 6 months.  Many people on the inside knew what the weakest link was (and still is).

Just as frayed tires on a brand new Volvo reduce the safety potential of one of the safest cars in the world to almost nothing and a fur hat, fur gloves and fur coat combined with 5-inch spiked heels offer little protection from injury in the winter, we must be aware of the weakest link in everything we do and be cognizant of its impact.

Think about the potential weakest link in a number of areas, including but not limited to:

  1. Personal relationships
  2. Business partnerships
  3. Personal safety
  4. Socioeconomic concerns
  5. Personal financial management
  6. Leadership
  7. Government accountability
  8. Humanitarian causes
  9. Business success (or even survival)

Let's not get paranoid about seeking the weakest link in everything or dedicate all of our time to correcting them, for if we do we will either go crazy or make the weakest link stronger while other things begin to fail from lack of attention.

However, let's be more cognizant of the impact of the weakest link such that if it should break, we have a strategy for the consequences.  Knowledge of probability and impact, strong strategic and tactical planning and passion for execution  allows us to be smarter and stronger for ourselves, our families, our relationships, the organizations we work for and with, our governments and our future.

Let's be aware of the bread recipe rule - that the same tools, bakers, ingredients and recipe ALWAYS produce the same bread.  If we address the weakest link, let's make sure that we are not baking another loaf that looks exactly the same as the old one.

That way, we don't need to hear someone pronounce later "well we knew that risk existed but we never thought ......".

We also can't point the finger and say "S/he told me that I didn't need to worry".

Let's take more responsibility in understanding the weakest links around us so that if something unfortunate manifests, we've done what we can to mitigate the risk and impact.

When that happens, no one can turn to you and say "YOU are the weakest link ".

Each of us is aware of the weakest links around us.  Do we want to take some ownership and responsibility in addressing them or do we prefer to hope nothing happens but play the victim card if and when it does.

Maybe we should make 2009 the Year of Personal Responsibility and Accountability.

What do you think?

In service and servanthood.



  1. Thanks again Harry. By focusing on the Reponsibility/Accountability paradigm we can certainly eliminate a lot of the "coulda, woulda, shoulda's"

    Rudy Giuliani's book "Leadership" addresses many of the points you bring to the fore in your message. Many of the problems of the dirty and dangerous NYC of the 70's came down to accountability in municipal government. By applying a high level of accountability in our own lives we have a better chance of keeping ourselves on course.


  2. Hey Gary,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful post! Giuliani's book is a great one that is highly recommended for anyone interested in leadership principles.

    Being in NYC during 9/11, I was reminded through his actions what a strong leader does (despite what nay sayers would like to pick on). :-)

    Thanks for the feedback, Gary!

    Take care and create a great day.