The Power of Example

“Followers expect their leaders to be better role models than themselves. The best leaders are just that.”
     ~Paul Balmert
Example:  an instance serving to illustrate a rule or precept

Videos gone viral. Two decades ago, the phenomena didn’t exist. Now they’re coming at you from every direction imaginable. Combine instant access to video – who doesn’t have a cell phone at the ready – with the media known by the adjective “social” and we have now a stunning form of communication. 

Not to mention entertainment.

Viral video is an example of what is known as a disruptive innovation. Fair to say, for many viewers, video has become an alternative to what the networks offer. That’s something you can be sure top executives in the media industry have taken keen note of. Anyone with a cell phone is now a potential competitor. Better – or worse – many of us will happily work for free. 

Picture something like that happening in your business; it’s a scary thought. You might wind up out of business.

As to what makes a video go viral – the factors that explain the cause of this effect – you can now read up on the subject in no less an authoritative source than the Harvard Business Review. One of their articles opens with the line, “A viral video is every marketer’s dream.”

That is the Harvard BUSINESS Review, whereas our focus is on safety. Still, there is something to be learned from the phenomena.  Actually, I should say “some things” as there is plenty to be learned. 

For openers, it’s the intensity of the feeling a video causes that is critical to going viral. That makes hazards – natural and man-made – fabulous candidates for viral videos.  

Here is one absolutely breathtaking example. You have to see it to believe it. 


That this happened in Midland, Texas is an amazing irony. You do remember what happened there, on 15 November, 2012, don’t you?

They say history doesn’t repeat, but it sure does rhyme.

An Example
This video serves as a perfect example of an example: an instance serving to illustrate a rule or precept. For openers, it serves to illustrate why a specific video would go viral: the intensity of emotion it creates is huge! That the officer was only “banged up, and still walking and talking” (as one account described) is nothing short of amazing. Consider what could have happened.
Events like this will do that. As to the point of things to be learned, there are several “rules and precepts” this example serves to illustrate. One would be hazard recognition. As in, “That deputy failed to recognize the hazard of that on-coming train.” 
I’d be willing to bet that would be the root cause of somebody’s investigation – the NTSB, should they decide to intervene, or the Sheriff’s Office, assuming this is the kind of event that rises to the level of requiring a complete and thorough root cause investigation.  The second train was hidden from sight, right? And had the deputy have recognized that hazard, he’d never have done what he did, right? It’s not like he wanted to get hurt, right?

Right. Preventive and corrective action: send the deputy to hazard recognition training.
If you agree with that, you have plenty of good company. I see it all the time: not limited to the public sector, but in big industrial outfits like the one you work for. There are a lot of leaders who think that way. 
This is a classic example of what is known as specious reasoning: something that sounds reasonable and plausible – on the surface. But put that thinking to the test, the logic falls apart. 
The thing is, it takes someone to challenge that kind of reasoning, putting it to the test. In science, that happens in what is called peer review: I dare you to poke holes in this! If not for peer review we might think earth is flat, and the center of the universe. 
Unfortunately, peer review does not routinely happen in most organizations: it looks too much like resistance. How dare you argue with the decision makers?
So, before anyone jumps on the bandwagon that “this is an example of the failure to recognize a hazard” consider the likely facts in the event.
For example, the crossing gate is down, lights flashing, train horns blasting. It’s even possible that bells are clanging – all for a reason: to warn of a hazard. Stop, look and listen: heed those warnings. 
There is the rule: given the situation, a driver is not allowed to cross the intersection. For a darn good reason. Follow the rules. Period.
There are two tracks at this crossing, not one. The first one can obscure the view of the second track, as was the case here.  Those of us who have driven in Midland know these are high speed rail lines. You can bet your last dollar that deputy knew that. 
So, despite ample warning of the presence of a hazard known to be fatal and rules to prevent exposure, the deputy put himself in harm’s way. It wasn’t just him! His back up – the second unit – was fully prepared to follow suit. 
Neither of them recognized that hazard?
I’m not buying that, not for a second. I’m sure you aren’t either. No reasonable and intelligent adult should see this as having anything to do with hazard recognition. That’s not the problem.
So, what is the problem? 
On one level, the answer is simple: this is a thinking problem. It’s a problem with how we humans think, about what we are doing, and what might happen to us while we are doing what we are doing.  That thinking problem has a fancy name: cognitive bias. 
Cognitive biases number more than a hundred: they’re flaws in how we think that come about because we humans are very inclined to look for the easy button – mental and physical – whether or not our thinking is right or wrong.  
It’s not the least bit difficult to come up with several cognitive biases that would cause not one, but two good sheriff’s deputies, to drive around railroad crossing arms.  In the heat of the battle, responding to an emergency situation, those biases can play large. 
I’ll stop at that point, having made the point. I’ll leave it to you to study up on cognitive bias. If you do, start with what’s called Lock on/Lock out. 
Don’t confuse that with lockout/tagout: I am describing what put a Lockheed 1011 Tri-Star down in the Everglades back in 1972, at a cost of 163 lives. 
To repeat: history may not repeat, but it does rhyme.
A Leading Example
As to the most important thing to be learned from this example, it’s the power of example. A leader’s example. It may not be immediately obvious, but if you think about what transpired, it becomes stunningly clear.
Picture the scene the moment before the event: a queue of vehicles waiting patiently – well, some not so patiently – for the train to cross.  My bad: it’s two trains. In Midland this is a regular occurrence, and in Midland, the trains are long.  At least they move fast. 
Two police cruisers, lights flashing and sirens wailing – not unlike the warning system for the rail crossing – cut around the cars lined up, making their way to the crossing. 
What would cause some bystander, sitting in a parked car to reach for the cell phone, flick over to the camera icon, and hit record? Actually, SEVERAL bystanders, as there are at least two videos in circulation, taken from different sides of the intersection.
Let’s rule out the possibility they knew an accident was about to happen: “You just watch: that second train’s gonna crush that cruiser, and I’m gonna be famous for catching that on my cell phone. I might even get rich.”
Hardly. The OMG moment heard on the video is the tip off. As an aisde, kudos for saying that way, by the way. Those would not have been my words. 
I suppose someone could ask, “Why did you video that?” 
It’s a good bet the answer would be, “I figured those two deputies were going to cut through the crossing with the arms down. If I did that and they caught me, I’d be driving away with a ticket!”
As to the point, that is exactly what followers the world over do to their leaders! 
They do it all the time. No, they don’t use video. But the image is recorded and preserved in the five and a half inch space between their ears.
Which is exactly where the game – process, if you prefer – of leadership is played: in that five and a half inch space between the ears of every follower. It’s one more reason why leading is tough duty: it’s always an away game, played on someone else’s home field. 
The Final Word
Leadership is complex. Leading by example isn’t.
In the process of leadership, there is nothing more powerful than that of example: what followers see their leader doing. On the point of example, followers expect their leaders to be better examples than themselves. 
It’s what followers do.
Paul Balmert
May 2019


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