Part 1: Our Natural Aversion to Loss

     We live in a world where lots of people possess the title of leader. But sadly, we encounter too few leaders who are willing to take a stand against injustice or push the boundaries of progress if doing so puts them at risk of losing something. At a time in our nation’s history when leaders at all levels seem content accepting mediocrity as the norm, many of us left scratching our heads and asking why? I believe one of the primary reasons so many people today are content accepting mediocrity instead of embracing excellence as their preferred way of walking in the world is our very human aversion to experiencing loss.

     Ori and Rom Brafman, in their book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, point out that “for no apparent logical reason, we overreact to perceived loss.” This can apply to loss of time, loss of prestige, loss of position, loss of relationships—and the list goes on. Neuroscientists are quick to add that losing something you already have is an extremely strong motivator to stick with the status quo. It saps our strength, steals our courage, and deters us from making moves in new, unproven, or uncomfortable directions. But perhaps the most troubling element of our built-in desire to avoid experiencing loss is how it can set us up to make decisions that are contrary to our values. 
     Take the story of Captain Jacob van Zanten, once a well-established and respected airline pilot who headed the safety program at the Dutch airline, KLM--the airline who touted themselves as “the people who make punctuality possible.”
In the spring of 1977, on a flight from Amsterdam to the Canary Islands, van Zanten learned that a terrorist bomb had exploded at the Las Palmas airport, where he was supposed to land. He, and scores of other flights, were diverted to a smaller airport 50 miles away.
     After safely landing the plane, van Zanten began worrying about a number of problems that would result if he failed to take off soon. For example, the Dutch government had recently instituted a mandated rest period between flights for pilots. Anyone who violated this period could be imprisoned. This meant if he didn’t depart quickly, the flight would be delayed for many more hours. Additionally, the Captain was acutely aware that staying overnight at this unexpected stop meant putting the passengers up in a hotel, which would be very costly for the airline. And if that were not enough, the rapidly deteriorating local weather was expected get far worse, further complicating an already challenging situation and perhaps even further delaying his subsequent departure.
     With the prospects of waiting much longer meant losing time, money, and his long-standing reputation for punctuality. You see, the good Captain had an unrivaled, almost legendary record for on-time performance. It was a record he was, understandably, very proud of.  
     Ultimately, van Zanten chose to go against his better judgment that day and decided to take off in a thick fog—despite knowing the risks, and not receiving an appropriate take off clearance—because it seemed like a now-or-never moment. Unfortunately, he didn’t see the Pan Am 747 crossing the runway in front of him until it was too late—and 584 people died as a result.
     The pressures and potential consequences of lost time piled up, and van Zanten fear of experiencing loss cost him, and scores of others who trusted him to do the right thing in the moment, dearly.

Copyright © 2012 - All Rights Reserved
John Michel
experienced leader, humanitarian, visioneer, and renown status quo buster,
is the author of the ground breaking book:
Mediocre Me: How Saying No to the Status Quo will Propel you from Ordinary to Extraordinary
Check out his blog at or drop him a note at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.