Christopher M. Broyhill, Ph.D., CAM
I received my USAF pilot wings in 1983, and from then until 1990 or so, we trained for a low-altitude war. The belief was that given the density of the air defense and surface-to-air missile network the Soviet bloc had in place, our odds of survival were better at low-altitude than medium or high altitude. I flew the A-10 at 250 to 500 feet all over Western Europe, and when I flew it in the U.S., at USAF Fighter Weapons School, I was checked out at 100 feet. Even at a mere 300 knots, the typical speed at which we flew the Hawg, a moment of inattention at 100 feet could turn you and your jet into a greasy stain on the landscape. In that environment, you need to focus on one thing, flying the jet. To avoid misprioritizing tasks, we had a mantra that we relied upon to stay alive: “Near rocks, far rocks, check six.” The thought process went like this:
NEAR ROCKS – what could I hit in the next minute (5 miles) or so? What piece of terrain or obstacle do I need to immediately avoid? Focus on that, move the jet around it, climb over it. Stay alive.
FAR ROCKS – what could I hit beyond that? Where’s the next ridgeline or the next obstacle? Can I change my course slightly now to avoid it? Plan ahead. Stay alive.
CHECK SIX – are their enemy jets sneaking up behind us? Do I need to make a defensive turn or can I continue on course? Do I fight or do I run to stay alive?
Each area had to receive precisely equal emphasis. If you spent too much time focusing on the near rocks, you could find in a square corner with an obstacle you didn’t plan for because you didn’t see it until that last minute. Or you could take an infrared missile up the tailpipe. If you spent too much time looking at the far rocks or checking for bad guys, you could run into the near terrain or obstacle. At 100 feet altitude and 500 feet per second of velocity, there was no tolerance for focusing on any one area for too long.
As leaders, this is a mantra that we can rely upon to guide our organizations.
NEAR ROCKS – what do I/we need to deal with immediately to keep the organization from “crashing?” What obstacles need to be overcome? What issues need to be resolved?
FAR ROCKS – what lurks beyond the “now?” What’s next? How can I/we plan to deal with issues that are on the horizon?
CHECK SIX – what are we missing? What can sneak up on us if we don’t pay attention?
In the leadership environment, the focus on each area must be as equal as it was in the low altitude environment, and the degree to which one area receives too much emphasis, the other two areas can cause significant problems. In this time of the COVID-19 crisis, the temptation for many of us will be to myopically focus on the near rocks. But we do so at our peril as well as the peril of our organizations and our people. While we stay focused on the near rocks, the far rocks aren’t going away and additional challenges will confront us and we’ll have to deal with them without any preparation. Additionally, as we focus on the near rocks, issues will sneak up on us, surprise us and cause harm to the organization – issues that we could have seen coming, if we had looked.
So, whether you’re flying a jet at low altitude or leading an organization through tough times, the mantra applies. Near rocks, far rocks, check six. The degree to which we learn it, live it and love it is the degree to which we and our organizations survive.