As my plane taxied to the runway outside of London, suddenly the monotony of hearing how to put on an oxygen mask, in the event that I would be alive long enough to benefit, was broken. Parked on the grass between the runways, slightly smaller than I imagined, sat a De Havilland Comet, the first commercial passenger jet.
In a visionary move the British government developed the Comet, foreseeing that air travel by jet was the future of transportation. They built this beautiful airplane whose design DNA is seen in all subsequent jet transports. It had only one major problem –they started falling out of the sky like rocks.
British aviation authorities immediately grounded the fleet of Comets. Then they spent almost as much money to determine why the planes were crashing, as they spent in developing the jet in the first place. What they discovered was that the structure of the Comet was designed to withstand the vibrations incurred by a propeller driven aircraft. The jet engines of the Comet literally shook the airplane apart. By the time they identified what the problem was, the public’s support and trust in the Comet was lost and they abandoned the project.
However, their discoveries, released on public domain, were seized by an American aircraft manufacturer, Boeing. In a remarkable example of learning from another’s mistakes, their 707 became what the Comet was intended to be.
In business and in life we often try to move into a new area or just grow beyond the capacity of existing structures. To borrow a description from the computer industry, our “operating system” sometimes doesn’t have the capacity to run the new program or application we want. Though things look great, the stress tolerances of our old system cannot meet the demands of these new opportunities and challenges. Then, as visionary as our initiative might be, it seems to crash and burn.
We all have operating systems. We have an intellectual operating system that allows us to grasp concepts and make use of knowledge and experience.
We also have a skill operating system. I know a lot of highly intelligent people, but if I needed by-pass surgery, I would want a certified surgeon, not just a member of the Mensa Society. Our culture tends to put great emphasis on these two systems, because they are what allow us to make a living and contribute to the well being of others.
There is a third operating system which is sometimes overlooked or marginalized. Yet this component, more than any other, determines how effective the other operating systems of our life function. It is our ethical system. Character is often what causes a person to utilize their intellectual system to its fullest capacity. Character helps us learn from mistakes and hone the skills which create opportunities and enable us to capitalize on opportunities when they come. It is character that sets the stage on which our skills and our intelligence is showcased.
If there is an Achilles Heel, it usually isn’t intelligence or skill that brings the mighty down. It is a vulnerability in their character.
As South African writer Nicky Verd explained, “A highly intelligent man/woman in the mind, who lacks basic morals and empathy in the heart, is nothing but a menace to society.”