By: Asoka Bandara
To understand the practical application of the A-O-R, Action-Observation-Reflection, concept, Hughes, Ginnet & Curphy’s book on Leadership outlines an example from Mr. Colin Powell who had the unique distinction of achieving the highest levels of U.S. Military and Civilian Leadership, as the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff and as U.S. Secretary of State, respectively.
This story goes back to 1963, where Powell was a 26-year-old officer who returned to the US from a combat tour of Vietnam. His next assignment completion was on a month-long advanced airborne Ranger course and nearing the end, he was to parachute with other troops from a helicopter.
As the senior officer of the helicopter, Powell had the responsibility for the overall execution. From the beginning, he stressed for everyone to make sure their static lines were secure- which are the cables that automatically pull the parachute open. Moreover, nearer to the point of jump, he shouted for the soldiers to check their hookups one more time. Then, in his own words …
“…Then like a fussy old woman, I started checking each line myself, pushing my way thru crowded bodies, running my hand along the cable and up to each man’s chute. To my alarm, one hook belonging to a sergeant was loose. I shoved the dangling line in his face, and he gasped. This man would have stepped out of the door of the helicopter and dropped like a rock”
What did Powell learn from this experience?
“Moments of stress, confusion and fatigue are exactly when mistakes happen. And when everyone else’s mind is dulled or distracted, the leader must be doubly vigilant. “Always check small things” was becoming another one of my rules”.
Let’s recap the A-O-R theory now:
Action: Powel’s multiple calls for parachutists to check their lines. He stressed on this message over and over.
Observation: His shock realization of a potentially fatal accident. Double-checking probably saved a life, a dent in his career and his conscience.
Reflection: Always check the small things. Focusing on Big Picture is strategic but the operational excellence is in details. This became an integral part of his leadership attributes and a positive influence on his illustrious career.
Asoka Bandara is a Management Consultant and Corporate Trainer based in Sri Lanka