Everyday work and freedom

Everyday work and freedom

Raise your hand if you live in the United States and are looking forward to going back to work on the Monday after the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

Each year leading up to July 4, people across the United States take in their annual share of parades, barbecues, and fireworks. Sometime along the way, someone invokes something about the nation’s founders and points out that this is the day that marks the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Before long, the holiday is over and it’s back to work.

But if we consider research from areas such as job satisfaction, employee engagement, and workplace productivity, any way you cut it, about three-quarters of the workforce is the opposite of excited about heading back to the office. That has enormous consequences for individuals, the economy, and society. So what can be done to reverse the trend?

When we study people who are considered leaders in their fields, it is clear that no matter what type of work they do, and whether they are world-renowned or better known in their own backyards, they follow many of the same fundamental behaviors and practices. On a day-to-day basis, they focus on and take responsibility for all of the things that have to be done – objectives, planning, decision-making, communication, and so on. Underlying it all, though, is something they each know about but don’t spend time actively dwelling on: why they perform the work they do. And they do it as a matter course, almost always without seeking adulation or fanfare.

One example of this may be found in the few hours before July 4, 1976, when four Lockheed Martin C130 transport planes rumbled through the deep night sky over Africa.

The planes, filled with pilots, passengers, and cargo, had been airborne for nearly eight hours and their fuel supplies were growing low. Soon they would land as scheduled on a runway at Entebbe, the international airport outside of Uganda’s capital city. That was not unusual. It was unusual that no one on the ground there was prepared for their arrival. That’s because no one was expecting them. And no one on the planes radioed their arrival, either.

Why those planes were making their way to Entebbe had to do with another plane. About a week earlier, Air France Flight 139 from Tel Aviv to Paris had been hijacked after a scheduled layover in Athens. There were 243 passengers and 12 crew members aboard. The plane was diverted to a refueling stop in Benghazi, Libya, before reaching its final destination at Entebbe, nearly 2,500 miles away from its point of origin in Israel.

The hijackers, two members of the German Baader-Meinhof gang and two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, soon were joined by a handful of comrades. They separated their hostages into two groups: those holding Israeli passports and those holding passports from other countries. The hostage-takers then announced their demand: 53 of their brethren must be freed from Israeli, West German, Kenyan, French, and Swiss jails within two days. If they were not, the hostages would be executed.

In Israel, government officials argued the merits of conceding to the hostage-takers’ demands. Then, after a few days, some hostages were released. None of them were Israeli. Michel Bacos, the captain of the Air France flight, and his crew declined to be released as long as any of their passengers were detained.

That night, Israeli intelligence agents were dispatched to where the freed hostages were being debriefed, and they began gathering information about what was going on at Entebbe. Meanwhile, with the hostage-takers’ deadline approaching, military leaders devised a plan. They labored through an unprecedented effort of coordinated research and discussion. Within hours, they had it.

The plan was audacious. Any chance of success it had, in fact, came from its very improbability. It relied on flying the C130s below radar and landing undetected at Entebbe. The first one would carry the Israel Defense Force’s legendary Sayeret Matkal commandos, a black Mercedes sedan, and two Land Rover jeeps; the unit would use the vehicles as a decoy, pretending to be Ugandan president Idi Amin’s motorcade, to make the two-kilometer run from the landing spot to where the hostages were being held. Then, while the first team was working to free the hostages, three trailing planes, with support personnel, equipment, and space to bring freed hostages back home, would make staggered landings in quick succession. Once the mission on the ground was complete, the planes would take off for refueling in Kenya and then homecoming in Israel.

When it came down to it, the mission hinged on that first plane landing – and without anyone on the ground at Entebbe noticing it.

Many people were involved in the planning and action, but the specific task and responsibility of landing the plane fell primarily on the shoulders of chief pilot Joshua Shani.

Mr. Shani already had developed a real command of the capabilities of the C130 in the few years since Israel had bought them. The C130 was designed to be able to do just this type of job. (This is ironic, because its appearance mostly resembles what the Israelis called it: karnaf, a rhinoceros.) These factors alone contributed a great deal to the successful 90-minute-long landing, raid, and hostage rescue at Entebbe. So does Mr. Shani’s realization that he, the son of Holocaust survivors, would be flying thousands of miles from home to save the lives of his countrymen.

Over the past 38 years, many details and lessons about the raid on Entebbe have emerged. They include how the mission was planned and executed in less than a week, and how it inspired the U.S. Navy SEAL’s mission to kill Osama Bin Laden. But as extraordinary as the raid was, getting the hostages back home was, simply, all in a day’s work.

To most people, using the raid on Entebbe as an example of everyday work doesn’t make sense. They see it as too much of an outlier for its lessons to be applied to what they do on a daily basis. In some instances, that criticism is fair. It usually takes a few decades to fully recognize why we do the work we do.

But when you are not looking forward to going to work on Monday, not using the example of Entebbe often is an excuse to resist answering the question: Why are you doing that work in the first place?