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What Being An Air Marshal Taught This CEO About Business

Here, from someone who spent years policing the skies, are lessons in vigilance and scenario planning from 30,000 feet.

What Being An Air Marshal Taught This CEO About Business
[Photo: Flickr user Hernán Piñera]

From 1991 to 1997, Guy Praisler rarely flew without a gun.

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In those years, Praisler–now the founder and CEO of Dine Market–was an air marshal with the Israeli airline El Al. It was a full-time job, though tailored in such a way that Praisler was able to simultaneously do an undergraduate degree in Boston, and then an MBA in New York. Often his job was to patrol the Israeli consulate or to serve as security at an airport. Even those locally based days weren’t easy: rise at 7 a.m., rush off for a full day’s work, head to school in the evening, then stay up till the wee hours doing homework.

Guy Praisler

But every few weeks, Praisler did something at least as tough: he took one or more commercial flights, posing as a normal passenger, all the while carrying a concealed weapon. Bizarre as it may sound, Praisler feels that these years were invaluable in preparing him for a life in business. Here are a few lessons he learned from patrolling the skies.

Constant Vigilance

Like entrepreneurialism, being an air marshal is a kind of endurance sport. “The challenge on long flights is to stay alert on the whole flight,” says Praisler. Imagine a job where almost certainly, you will never have to act at all (and indeed, Praisler never dealt with an in-flight attack)–and yet to have your attention slacken for even a moment could be disastrous. Is there a temptation to slack off, to assume something will never happen? “I never felt that way, not even once,” says Praisler. “You don’t expect it to happen all the time, but you do expect it to happen.”

Be Aware Of Everything, But Focus On What’s Important

An air marshal’s job is familiar to any anxious flyer–you scrutinize fellow passengers’ behavior for anything suspicious. But Praisler’s job went even deeper than that, because the most effective terrorists doubled as kinds of con men, able to pull attention from what matters. That noise coming from the lavatory? The calm person assumes it’s nothing to worry about, while the anxious person worries it’s someone placing a bomb. But the air marshal knows it might be a distraction to pull attention from someone sneaking up the other aisle with a box cutter. “You’re developing a 360-degree view,” says Praisler, but all the while being smart about what to ignore, and what to focus on.

Consider Multiple Futures

When Praisler talks about guarding an airplane, he uses the same phrase again and again: “You’re always running different scenarios.” At any given moment, the air marshal’s head is a grim playbook, a series of decision trees stretching into the future, none of which he hopes to have to use. Little did Praisler realize how well this would prepare him for the vicissitudes of business. A setback these days never feels catastrophic, since he can imagine multiple possible futures. “Someone said to me the other day, ‘I never saw you really upset.’” It’s because whenever a problem arises, his mind springs to multiple possible solutions. “I’m always running different scenarios and thinking, ‘What’s the best strategy I can use in this case?’”

Be Courageous

It goes without saying that to be prepared to charge at an armed hijacker takes courage. What’s more remarkable is to hear Praisler describe the startup life–and Dine Market is his fourth–as requiring almost as much courage. “Running a startup is a really, really hard job,” he says. “You’re diving into something really unknown, where the rate of success is really low. The day-to-day operations are a roller coaster. You need stamina and a strong stomach.” He believes difficult training–not just to be an air marshal, but any post in security or the military (Praisler’s first training was in the Israeli Defense Forces)–helps people take that first charge into the unknown that is founding a startup.

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Training Is Everything

And speaking of training–if you do enough of it, the rest comes entirely naturally, even under dramatic circumstances.

Though Praisler never had to defuse an actual hijacking, his training came in handy just a few years ago in New York. While riding a bus up Madison Avenue, he heard a very loud cough, then simultaneously heard a woman say, “Are you okay?” and felt the bus hit something. Without reflecting further, Praisler sprung into action, rushing to the driver–who was slumped in his seat, his foot stuck on the accelerator.

The bus careened forward, smashing into parked cars. Praisler seized the wheel to straighten the bus, but he initially wasn’t able to press his foot on the brakes. As the bus careened further uptown, Praisler finally managed to pry the man’s foot from the accelerator. The bus slowed to a stop, having traveled almost 10 blocks. Fortunately, no one was severely injured. (The driver woke up a few seconds later; Praisler later inquired about the man’s health, but received no word.)

Praisler credits his air marshal training for spurring him into reflexive action. “As an air marshal, you’re a one-man army. If there’s a threat somewhere, you’re trained to start acting against your nature. Everyone is running away, and you run towards it.”

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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