CAIM member Aidan Feighery recounts the amazing story of one man’s critical decision making during the Cold War.
On 26 September 1983, the computers in the Serpukhov-15 bunker outside Moscow, which housed the command centre of the Soviet early warning satellite system, issued a series of false warnings. Initially, they reported that a single missile had been launched by the U.S.. Shortly afterwards the system “detected” a further four missiles heading towards the Soviet Union.
At the time, Cold War tensions were at their height and the Soviets were convinced that an American attack was imminent.
Stanislav Petrov, who was duty officer that night, suspected that the system was malfunctioning, and decided not to declare a missile attack. He believed that if the Americans were going to attack pre-emptively they would do so with more than just five missiles, and that it was best to wait for ground radar confirmation before launching a counter-attack. However, this delay was likely to be fatal to any attempt at effective retaliation.
Petrov’s judgement was vindicated. A satellite had been fooled by the sun’s rays reflecting off clouds over North Dakota! A nuclear holocaust was averted.
Petrov had a deep understanding of the system he was working with and knew its limitations. “We are wiser than the computers” he told Der Spiegel magazine in 2010. “We created them.” He had the experience and independence to make a brave call. And having made a critical intervention and demonstrated the defects in the system, he moved on to another position. His training was crucial. Essentially, he was a scientist. Had he been a career soldier he probably would have declared an attack.
You may well ask what the relevance this story has to interim managers.
Well, in our own much smaller way, we would like to think that interim managers share some of the qualities displayed by Stanislav Petrov: the ability to calmly manage an often-critical situation with a clear head, assessing the risks, weighing up the options and offering an effective solution. Thankfully, the projects CAIM members face are not to the scale of the challenge encountered by Petrov.
So, what happened to Petrov?
Rather than proclaiming Petrov a hero, the Soviet authorities gave him a hard time and he ended his days in modest circumstances. He died in May 2017.
In our period of renewed nuclear tensions, let’s hope that the warning systems have improved and are supervised by calm and knowledgeable professionals.