Spatial Disorientation: When You Think You’re Making the Right Decisions But May Be Hurting Your Company

Earlier this year when I did some research for my new book – about what it takes for a company to continue to grow, year on year, decade on decade – I interviewed Colonel Kim “KC” Campbell, a retired US Air Force officer and command pilot.

As we spoke about the similarities of going from being a recreational pilot to a combat fighter pilot and a CEO of a small company to running a big company, she shared some insights from her experiences, described in her book Flying in the Face of Fear: A Fighter Pilot’s Lessons on Leading with Courage. It’s an inspiring, practical discussion of leadership and decision-making, with specific strategies and techniques for leading in situations of extreme stress and risk.

In her book, Colonel Campbell talks about an incident when the hydraulics didn’t respond to any of her control inputs, and her jet rolled, then headed straight towards the ground.

None of the procedures she tried to fix the problem worked, so she switched her controls to manual reversion mode and used a system of cables and pulleys (like how the Wright brothers flew their aircraft) to get out of danger and land safely.

Disconnected from Reality

In our conversation, what really got my attention was how pilots are affected by spatial disorientation.

Spatial disorientation. The inability of a person to determine his true body position, motion, and altitude relative to the earth or his surroundings. Both airplane pilots and underwater divers encounter the phenomenon.


It’s a disconnect between what you feel is happening and what is actually happening. You believe you are doing the right thing but absolutely are not. Spatial disorientation – which can happen to even the most experienced pilots – can be the cause of aviation incidents when pilots think something is wrong and don’t even trust their instruments.

Colonel Campbell once needed the help of her flight commander to re-orient herself after experiencing spatial disorientation during midair refueling. Without the help of her team, the situation could have escalated to dangerous levels.

After listening to her, I realized that this disorientation can also happen to CEOs and executives in high-stake or high-pressure situations when we think we’re making the right decisions but may actually make decisions devastating for the business.

Get Back to the Basics

And this is why it’s important to zoom out and spend an appropriate amount of time on big and critical decisions and why CEOs need – just like a pilot who relies on their instruments and control centre – to work with their teams to calibrate or recalibrate their strategy.

Think about what gives you a competitive advantage, with key people who bring different insights and perspectives, informed by great data, to give you a picture of the true, current reality.

It’s the only way to get out of the tailspin and safely back to your flight plan.

The Challenge

    • When are you most likely to experience spatial disorientation – now or in the future?
    • What strategies can you put in place to recalibrate with your strategy, with key people or with data?

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