In an era in which bizarre personalities seduce the masses and bombastic characters occupy leadership positions in politics and the media, it is important to note that it is very hard to combine an explosive character with an intelligent mind. This is because an impulsive person will be guided more by his or her passions than by reason when making crucial decisions.
History offers us multiple cases in which an impulsive person led to a chain of unfortunate events for a country or an organization, but instead of this I would like to recall an event in which a man’s moderation saved us from a nuclear apocalypse 32 years ago.
In came the tensest moment of the
Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. After numerous incidents, the major powers were on the verge of war.
To make matters worse, on of that year, a plane from a South Korean airline mistakenly entered the airspace of the Soviets, who did not hesitate to shoot it down without warning. 269 people were killed, including a senator and several U.S. citizens. Meanwhile the U.S. and NATO were planning to place missiles in West Germany and organized a military exercise in Europe. This was taken by the Soviet Union as a sign of imminent attack.
On , Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, 44, was called to replace a sick officer at the early warning system of military intelligence, where he coordinated the Russian aerospace defense. This officer was responsible for alerting the high command if American nuclear missiles were launched, which would result in the Soviets responding with their missiles.
Shortly after midnight, what everyone had feared happened. The warning systems sounded the alarm and computer screens showed that a missile had been launched from a U.S. base.
All eyes turned to the man in charge, Petrov, and he began to corroborate the data. Despite positive confirmations, the officer concluded that it was a system error, since it wouldn’t have made sense for the United States to attack with only one missile. Petrov dismissed the threat.
Five minutes later, the system alerted them to a second missile, then a third, a fourth, and a fifth. The panicked officials once again looked to Petrov. The flight time of an intercontinental ballistic missile from the U.S. to Russia was 20 minutes, so every second was precious. Petrov once again worked on confirming the data, and it appeared that the Soviet Union was under attack.
The officer stood in front of the radio system. He only had to give the order and World War III would break out. But he stopped to think for a moment. An attack with five missiles didn’t make sense. If the Americans were going to attack, it was logical to assume that they would launch a massive strike.
To the astonishment of the 120 soldiers who were with him, Petrov said that it must have been a system error. The courageous decision of a restrained and calm person saved the world from a nuclear disaster. What would have happened if Petrov had been an impulsive and vociferous leader, like what seems to be commonplace these days?
We cannot put the future of our country in the hands of impulsive people, nor is it worth listening to those in the media who want to impose their ideas by yelling instead of rational arguments. An effective leader is not necessarily one who says whatever comes to mind, but one who first thinks about what to say.