A NOTE FROM WARD HUBBELL
One of the great privileges of my life was getting to know a genuine American hero – Chuck Yeager, the high school educated mechanic from West Virginia who became the first human to break the sound barrier and eventually rose to the rank of Air Force General. Our paths crossed early in my career in Washington D.C. and again later when I moved to Portland to work for a company where General Yeager served on the board of directors.
Allow me to provide a bit of context: I grew up dreaming of flying and actually became a pilot in my teens, albeit an amateur one licensed to fly the aeronautical equivalent of a lawnmower. When I met Chuck and eventually got to know him, I was really getting to know one of my childhood heroes, a privilege afforded to the fortunate few. Over the course of several years, I sat in a lot of meetings with Chuck, traveled with him, visited him in his home, met his family and shared some memorable meals with him.
It was during one of those meals that I asked him about a part of his career most people don’t think of when they think of General Yeager. Before becoming a test pilot, Chuck was one of the deadliest pilots in World War II, shooting down a dozen Nazi planes in dogfights over Europe. How was it, I asked, that he was engaged in airborne duels with so many skilled pilots and prevailed? How was it that he lived while those who encountered him did not?
Those of us who know Chuck come to expect a communication style of piercing clarity and directness oftentimes laced with profanity. His answer did not disappoint. He told me that whenever he saw one of those Nazi sons-of-bitches on his tail, the first thing he would do was go into a banked turn so steep, with gravitational force so severe that he would pass out. He did this because he knew that the only way the enemy could follow him was to do the exact same thing, meaning he too would become unconscious due to the massive gravitational pressure.
Naturally, I took the bait and asked how on earth that enabled him to be so successful in the air. “Because,” he said with a grin, “all you have to do is be the first man who wakes up.”
As I ponder the COVID-19 world and the uncertainty that comes with it, I think about that dinner years ago with General Yeager and his rather shocking and unexpected answer to my question. Many of us are in the business equivalent of a fight to the death, only this time it’s with an invisible enemy – the virus. In fighter pilot parlance, we are in a steep banked turn and are pulling a lot of Gs.
I wouldn’t begin to predict the contours or timing of our recovery. What I do know though, is that one day this will be over. One day we will recover and this horrible plague will go away. As businesspeople, we could do well to heed the words of one of America’s greatest heroes and be one of the companies still around when this is over. Be one of the ones to wake up.
You may be bloodied and bruised and half the size you were before the pandemic but chances are the world will still need the product or service you offer. If you’re standing and your competitors are not, you’ll likely be wiser, stronger, smarter and participating in a much less crowded and competitive market than you were before.