• In 1983 Stanislav Petrov was responsible for reacting to a report that five American nuclear missiles were heading toward the Soviet Union.
  • Rather than retaliate, he followed his gut feeling and went against protocol, convincing the armed forces that it was a false alarm.
  • His decision saved the world from a potential devastating nuclear holocaust.
  • There is a lesson for all of us: try and actively place yourself in the right place at the right time.

For a few crucial moments on September 26, 1983, Stanislav Petrov held the fate of the world in his hands. Just after midnight an alarm suddenly went off at the Soviet nuclear early warning center Serpukhov-15, just outside Moscow. The computers reported that a single intercontinental ballistic missile was heading toward the Soviet Union from the United States. Shortly after, another four missiles were detected, all directed towards the United States.

Cold War relations between the two countries were at an all-time low and just three weeks before, the Soviet military had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing all 269 people on board. The Soviets were on a hair-trigger alert, very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents.

Petrov’s responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. If notification was received from the early warning systems that inbound missiles had been detected, the Soviet Union’s strategy was an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the United States (called launch on warning), specified in the military strategy of mutual assured destruction.

He dismissed the warnings as false alarms, suspecting that the computer system was malfunctioning, despite having no other source of information to confirm his suspicions. The Soviet Union’s land radar was incapable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon, and waiting for it to positively identify the threat would limit the Soviet Union’s response time to a few minutes. Still, Petrov failed to act. When the missiles reached the outer border of the Soviet Union and the satellite surveillance handed over to the land radar, the missiles disappeared.

It was subsequently determined that the false alarms were caused by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds. Ronald Reagan, U.S. president at the time, called it, “The closest our country has come to accidental nuclear war.”

What made Petrov different from most military personnel was that he allowed common sense to inform his judgment. He realized that a U.S. strike would be all-out, with hundreds of missiles, so five missiles seemed an illogical start to a world war. The real danger was in the Soviet leadership thinking, which was basically: “The Americans may attack, so we had better attack first.” Petrov, on the other hand, felt that his civilian training helped him make the right decision. His colleagues were all professional soldiers with purely military training and would have reported a missile strike immediately to the Kremlin if they had been on his shift. Had Petrov followed orders, as per military protocol, hundreds of millions would have died and the world would have looked very different today. As Petrov has kept repeating humbly to this day, “I was just in the right place at the right time.”

It’s a valuable lesson on the dangers of global war, power and military strategy, yet this incident was only recognized publicly in 2006 when Petrov traveled to the U.S. and was honored at the United Nations in New York. In the Soviet Union he received no reward or recognition because the incident, and other bugs found in the missile detection system, embarrassed his superiors and the influential scientists who were responsible for it. If Petrov had been officially rewarded, the scientists would have had to be punished. Instead, he was reassigned to a less sensitive post, took early retirement and suffered a nervous breakdown.

Petrov’s experience can be referenced as the quintessential example of the absurdity of modern warfare. It’s the epitome of war seen as humanity’s endless propensity for senseless violence with ever more powerful weapons and technologies. Author Ian Morris, in his book War! What is it Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots has even coined a phrase for it, “getting to Petrov”  – that he uses to illustrate the path human history took to go from primitive bands of hunter-gatherers engaging in disorganized (and often unfocused) violence against each other, to the fate of a billion people resting in the split-second decision of a single man.

As business leaders we all face challenges that are far below the levels of stress that Petrov had to face that night back in 1983. Yet, aren’t we all faced with a similar, slower dilemma on a daily basis that might result in a scenario just as catastrophic? We are told that our use of carbon fuels is leading to global warming, we hear about pollution and deforestation killing our oceans and wiping out animal species, we read about the 7.3 billion people on our planet and the challenges around feeding them. Should we comfortably continue within the consumer and business system in which we live (the equivalent of old Soviet Union thinking) or should we listen to that small flicker of doubt inside, that tells us something is wrong?

Petrov’s story may illustrate the dangers or war, but his lesson is much wider – that an individual has the power to change the course of history. Not a president, billionaire or celebrity, but an ordinary lieutenant colonel of the Soviet military.

Petrov’s only comment on this little-known incident should apply to all of us: fate aside, we should try and ensure that we are always the right people, in the right place, at the right time, to help avoid catastrophic events.