A few weeks ago, a former U.S. fighter pilot named Kermit Tyler died at the age of 96. It was what he did – or didn’t do – in his workplace at age 28 that earned him a place in history.

Lieutenant Tyler’s story was told by Gordon Prange in his book, “At Dawn We Slept”.

The date was December 7, 1941 and Lieutenant Tyler was the pursuit officer and assistant controller on duty at the Fort Shafter Information Centre in Hawaii. His job was to assist the controller in ordering U.S. planes into the air to intercept incoming enemy planes.

At just after 7:00am, Lieutenant Tyler was one of only two men on duty in the Information Centre (the other was the switchboard operator). Unbeknownst to Tyler, 350 Japanese fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes were descending upon Pearl Harbor in two waves at that moment.

Approximately 90 minutes earlier, the Japanese air armada had begun to launch from six aircraft carriers located some 200 miles south of the Hawaiian islands. Their objective was to deliver a crippling blow to the American Pacific fleet as a prelude to a declaration of war with the United States.

The switchboard operator received a call from the Opana Mobile Radar Station, located about 30 miles away. He passed the call to Lieutenant Tyler, who heard that Opana had detected a flight of incoming aircraft – described by the oscilloscope operator as the biggest sighting he had ever seen.

Tyler made the assumption that the blips picked up at Opana represented a flight of American B-17 bombers arriving from the mainland. His response to Opana? “Well, don’t worry about it.”

The rest, as they say, is history. The Japanese invaders caught Pearl Harbor napping, devastated the Pacific fleet and inflicted thousands of casualties and fatalities.

To be fair to Lieutenant Tyler, his wasn’t the only glitch in the lead up to what is now referred to simply as “Pearl Harbor”. Numerous other indications that an attack was imminent also went undelivered or unheeded. Even had he acted with dispatch, it is unclear just how much Tyler could have done to ward off the impending disaster – he was just a small cog in a very big military bureaucracy.

Lieutenant Tyler’s conduct that day indicated a state of mind which afflicts many large organizations. It is the tendency of employees in large organizations to do nothing, even when faced with a situation calling for positive action.

In his book, “The Ten Commandments for Business Failure”, former President of the Coca-Cola company Donald Keough described a lesson he learned about how people operate in a large bureaucracy. “They never say no. They just don’t do what you want when you want.”

The tendency of employees to lose their sense of urgency and their motivation to take individual action is one which managers constantly battle in large organizations. Lieutenant Tyler’s ill-fated assumption in 1941 may have been an example of that workplace dynamic.

What must have been particularly galling to his superior officers is that detecting incoming aircraft and instigating a response was precisely the reason why he was at the Information Centre. The specific duty with which he had been entrusted was the one he failed to exercise at the most critical moment.

Lieutenant Tyler’s conduct may also have been a gross example of what I call “What are the chances?” decision-making. Sometimes in business – probably more often than you’d think - the worst case scenario is dismissed simply on the basis that it doesn’t seem very likely to come to pass.

It’s also one of the methods of decision-making which is most fraught with the potential for disaster. As I frequently tell employers, if your decision-making is reliant on nothing more than chance, you’re courting trouble.

I imagine that Lieutenant Tyler spent most of his adult life contemplating, and trying to explain, the events of December 6, 1941. Surely, he would have given anything to have had a second opportunity to react to that call from Opana Mobile Radar Station.

His was a lesson employers would be well-advised to learn. What’s the alternative? Well, don’t worry about it.

Robert Smithson is a lawyer in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, or to view past “Legal Ease” columns, log onto www.pushormitchell.com. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be relied upon as legal advice.

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