Years ago I read that South Korea had the highest rate of alcohol-related auto deaths of any civilized nation. Funny thing is, I was sitting in the back of a taxi on the way to Incheon Airport in Seoul at the time.
Wait, it gets better.
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No sooner had I finished the article than the cab began to swerve a little. At first, I thought nothing of it. Then the taxi began to slow down for no apparent reason. Cars honked their horns as they blew past us on the highway. Sure enough, the driver was dozing off.
I looked over at my marketing VP and saw fear in his eyes. Or maybe it was a reflection of what I was feeling. All I know is, I wasn’t ready to die. Not that way. We both started shouting at the driver. That perked him, at least for a few minutes. Then, each time he began to nod off, we’d sort of tap him on the back of the head to keep him awake.
I was never so happy to arrive at an airport. It felt like a miracle to be alive. My associate and I laughed, we hugged, then got in line to check in for Asiana Airlines flight 214 back home to San Francisco.
Yes, I know how far fetched that sounds. I wouldn’t believe it either if it hadn’t happened to me. But it did. Just as I said it did. Years ago.
Luckily, it wasn’t my time. But I took that flight home from business trips to Asia all the time. And not once did I ever feel the slightest bit of concern. After all, when you’ve flown more than 3 million miles without an incident, you start to take it for granted.
If airline employees ever felt that way – that sense of security that nothing could go wrong – then air travel wouldn’t have such an outstanding safety record. Thank God they and everyone associated with the airline industry take their responsibilities seriously, that all those employees know exactly what they have to do when they wake up each morning. And they know their number one priority is to “first, do no harm.”
Granted, there are outliers, people who screw up, make mistakes, have a drink when they shouldn’t, or have trouble sleeping the night before. It happens. You can end up on that one flight. Or in that one taxi.
But here’s something nobody stops to consider. What it’s like to be that pilot or that driver who ends up with casualties on their hands. Even if you’re a manager or an executive in the chain of command, if it happens on your watch, it can have a devastating effect on you, on your career, and on the rest your life.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to make some sort of bizarre comparison between people who cause work-related accidents and their victims. What I am saying is there are times when you – that’s right, you – will be in a position to do harm to others and yourself. Maybe not physical harm, but serious harm, nonetheless.
I know I have. Thousands of times.
For more than a decade, I was a senior executive and a corporate officer in public and private companies. The leadership teams I was part of held the fate of thousands of employee’s livelihoods, investor portfolios, and customer product lines in their hands.
And trust me when I tell you, there were loads of opportunities to swerve off the straight and narrow road. Almost every day.
For many years before that, I managed hundreds of people. There were times when I let the stress and my own issues get the better of me. There were outbursts and phone calls I wished I could take back. Emails that never should have been sent. They harmed others and, in some cases, myself.
I don’t know how many times I let myself get distracted behind the wheel of a hunk of metal weighing thousands of pounds, barreling down the freeway at 65 miles per hour.
And don’t even get me started on relationships.
Look, this isn’t some sort of cathartic exercise for me. I came to terms with all this stuff ages ago. This is for you.
“First, do no harm” isn’t just for doctors, CEOs, airline pilots, cruise ship captains, and cab drivers. It’s not just for those who work in oil exploration, investment banking, or environmental regulation. It’s not even just for bosses, either.
Every one of you will, from time to time, find yourself in a position to do harm to a customer, an investor, an employee, a co-worker, the company you work for, your fellow taxpayers, or yourself.
If you’re one of the many people who weren’t blessed with a strong work ethic or a solid moral compass, then at least look at it this way. There is a practical aspect to this sort of thing. John Lennon called it Instant Karma. And he didn’t live to see the Internet, where every mistake, every dumb thing you write or post, lives for all eternity.
Companies have brands. Leaders, executives, managers, and professionals have reputations. Everyone has a personal brand. You don’t have to physically harm someone to wake up with a pit in your stomach, wishing the day before had never happened. Remember: First, do no harm. It’s just a smart way to live.