Crashing Forward: How to Find Your Cloud’s Silver Lining

Hugh William Bell Cairns by Sidney SmithA few weeks ago, I shared a quote from T.E. Lawrence. He was famous for his world travels as an archeologist and a member of the British Army. He wrote extensively about his adventures, particularly his involvement in the Arab Revolt. After returning home from the Middle East, he delivered hundreds of lectures, sharing pictures and stories. This brought him fame and the nickname “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Two months after leaving military service for good, Lawrence was riding his motorcycle and had an accident. Cresting a hill, he suddenly came upon two boys in the road and swerved to miss them. He lost control and flew over the handlebars, hitting his head. He fell into a coma and died six days later on May 19, 1935.

But this story isn’t about T.E. Lawrence; it’s about Hugh Cairns.

Cairns worked as a neurosurgeon at the London Hospital. In fact, he was a key advocate of neurosurgery as a medical specialty and focused on head injuries during the Second World War. When Lawrence’s accident occurred, Cairns was one of the men called in to treat him.

The event had a significant impact on Cairns. After Lawrence died, he began an intensive study of head injuries resulting from motorcycle accidents. Military communications were often delivered via motorcycle couriers. The British Army, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force all used these “despatch riders” regularly as radio communication technology was still in its infancy. With so many riders on the road, accidents were inevitable; and head injuries were extremely common.

Given the serious nature of head injuries, Cairns knew they had to be treated quickly. But soldiers in the field had to be evacuated to receive the specialized care they required in established hospitals. So the doctor created eight mobile neurosurgical units and sent them to North Africa, Italy, India, and other frontline locations throughout Europe. His teams treated over 20,000 patients and changed the face of field medicine.

Cairns further determined that the best way to reduce the potential for head injuries as a result of motorcycle accidents was to push for the use of crash helmets. He put together a rudimentary design and petitioned the British armed forces to adopt them. The helmets had an immediate impact, drastically reducing the percentage of fatalities. The introduction of helmets has saved the lives of countless motorcyclists since.

They say every cloud has a silver lining; but it all depends on who’s looking at the cloud. Tragedy affects people in different ways. Some turn inward, focusing on the frustration, anger, or other negative emotions. Others though, quickly move beyond the negativity, choosing to focus on moving forward. They turn the negative energy resulting from failure or loss into a force for change. They choose to harness their emotions and channel them into a better future.

Hugh Cairns chose to use the death of T.E. Lawrence as motivation to change the fate of motorcycle riders. He chose to make a difference and create a silver lining. Today, people who have no idea he ever existed continue to benefit from his decision.

Some of the biggest disappointments we face may be opportunities in disguise. All it takes to reveal them is the right attitude. Here are three steps you can take to take something negative and create something positive.

  1. Determine what went wrong. This first step seems obvious, but most organizations approach it the wrong way. They focus on assigning blame – who was at fault. The key is to identify the steps, specific decisions and actions, that led to the issue. Only by understanding the contributing factors can you properly address step two.
  2. Decide on a solution. There are really two aspects to this step. The first involves rectifying the immediate issue. The second requires you to look at additional measures that can be taken to minimize contributing factors. For Cairns, the immediate problem was the amount of time it took to transport patients from the field to the hospital. He addressed this by providing in-field care for head injuries. But he further attacked the problem by developing a solution for a contributing factor – the unprotected heads of motorcycle riders.
  3. Involve the key stakeholders. Designing headgear was not within Cairns’ realm of expertise. Furthermore, he knew that he couldn’t achieve wide-spread adoption of motorcycle helmets on his own. So he took his rudimentary, proof-of-concept model to the military – the largest group of stakeholders he could find. The top brass had a significant interest in protecting their personnel. It was through their involvement that the helmets were refined, tested, and ultimately produced.

Bad things are going to happen. People, systems, and products will fail. Effective leaders recognize this and use tragic circumstances as catalysts to learn and create a better future.

“It is not what you look at that matters; it is what you see.” Henry David Thoreau

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