The Difference Between Clear and Nuclear Thinking

My Tribute to the Man Who Saved the World

Stanislav Petrov. Odds are you have never heard of him, but the world owes a huge debt of thanks to him.


On September 26, 1983, Stanislav’s computer screen flashed red with the word “LAUNCH.” This was the early warning detection that five nuclear missiles had been launched by the United States en route to Moscow. The data showed that there were only 20 minutes to launch a counter-attack. Petrov felt as if he were burning up in his chair.

Clear Thinking

But rather than reacting immediately and recommending a counter-attack to his superiors (something he should have done), he took a moment to think through the situation. He was a trained soldier, but he had a civilian degree that taught him to look carefully at the data in front of him. He reasoned, Why would the US only launch 5 missiles? That would certainly cripple the USSR, but not hinder a counter-attack. Plus the early detection system was new and was likely sending a false alarm…


Thankfully, his calm reasoning won the day, and World War III was averted. It turns out what seemed to be missiles were just a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds about South Dakota. What did he receive for his cool-headed leadership on that day? A reprimand for not filing the paperwork correctly, a demotion, and no rewards. Had he been praised, many scientists who built the early-detection system would have had to be reprimanded. So the whole ordeal was covered up. It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that the truth came to the surface and he was given recognition for his heroism before he slipped away from the spotlight again. And with little fanfare, Stanislav Petrov died on May 19, 2017, in a little run-down Soviet-era apartment on the outskirts of Moscow.

Petrov never saw himself as a hero, he was simply doing his job. And I thank him for going above and beyond the call of duty to do his job with detailed attention and care.

My Takeaways:

*Good leaders do their job. Everyday. Even when it’s monotonous. Because when a crisis hits you will need to draw on the experience you have. Show up or you may miss your moment to make a world of difference.

*Good leaders do not make knee-jerk decisions. Nuclear disaster or a team blow up, can be avoided by a few seconds of reflection and thought.

*Good leaders are not always treated as heroes. Some are forgotten, and some are even punished for their actions. But doing the right thing is never a bad idea.

Thank you, Mr. Petrov, for doing your job well under pressure. The world thanks you and has much to learn from your calm, rational thinking in heated situations.