The Will O’Leary Rule

During the years I spent toiling for an advertising agency, the ego of the high-flying gentleman who owned the establishment fancied charter flights. In fact, to impress an adolescent nephew, Il Grande Formaggio once chartered a jet to fly us to a meeting in Cleveland, took the nephew on the flight, and had the cabbie who drove us from the airport to the meeting drop the nephew off at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Le Gros Fromage had to replace his entire hat collection after that momentous trip.

Most times, though, he chartered small prop planes at a local airstrip. One such charter, booked in the dearth of commercial flights available in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, took us to Richmond to meet with a prospect. The small plane sufficed: It’s less important to impress a prospect than it is to convince your teenage nephew you’re The Man.

A Tangent

Two things are true of me: (1) I fall asleep readily on planes, frequently being out like a light before being airborne. (2) I disdain seat belts, on planes, in cars, anywhere. Aside from the fact that they make me uncomfortable, I once witnessed an event that solidified my anti-restraint stance:

As the car rolled across the median, the driver-side door was thrown open by centrifugal force, ejecting the driver upward, directly perpendicular to the ground, as the car rolled away beneath her.

Driving south on I-91 in Connecticut with my two then-young sons in the car, a station wagon in the left lane and a sedan in the middle lane attempted to switch lanes with each other at the same time. Recognizing their tactical error simultaneously before they collided, the drivers of the cars jerked their respective steering wheels. The driver in the sedan in the middle lane veered violently but safely into the right lane. The driver in the station wagon, the suspension of which responded as if it were manufactured of old bedsprings and marshmallows, yanked her steering wheel hard left toward the median. The car responded by barrel-rolling off the highway and onto the grassy median between the north- and south-bound lanes of traffic. As the car rolled across the median, the driver-side door was thrown open by centrifugal force, ejecting the driver upward, directly perpendicular to the ground, as the car rolled away beneath her. She landed safely and unharmed in the grass on the median as the car continued to roll, across the median and onto the other side of the highway, at which point it was struck by a northbound tractor-trailer rig and pretty much disintegrated. Lesson learned.

Back to Our Story

At any rate, we undertook our flight to Richmond heedless of the fact that there were violent thunderstorms the length of the Eastern Seaboard. In my characteristic state of oblivion, I was comatose before the plane’s three wheels ever pried themselves free from the tarmac.

I put my hands to my head, making a quick check of my scalp to ascertain whether I’d suffered a laceration.

At one point during the flight, the plane was rocked so violently — percussion from a thunderclap? a wind shear? generic aviatic turbulence? — my belt-less body was hurled upward (or the plane was hurled downward) causing me to wallop my noggin on the ceiling of the cabin … and even waking me up. I put my hands to my head, making a quick check of my scalp to ascertain whether I’d suffered a laceration. I found a decent-sized mouse on the top of my coconut, but no broken skin or blood. (If I hadn’t whacked my thick, Irish skull, I might have been killed … or worse.) I also made a quick check of my shorts to make sure I was still sanitary. Then I decided it might be prudent to panic. At the very least, it seemed as if a simmering terror might not be completely out of line.

But before panicking or surrendering to stark terror, I looked forward to the young dude in the cockpit. He was cool as a cuke. While this might have qualified as rank rationalization, been a textbook example of wishful thinking, or been tantamount to a furtive search for the silver lining in a septic tank, I arrived at what seemed at the time to be two fairly sensible conclusions:

The young dude in the cockpit knew a hell of a lot more about flying that plane than I did. If he wasn’t rattled, let alone terrified, there was no reason for me to be.


When we were safely grounded in Richmond, I went up to the cockpit, congratulated the young dude on his aeronautical acumen, thanked him for his grace under what I took to be a completely new spin on atmospheric pressure, shook his hand, and asked him his name.

“Will O’Leary,” he said matter-of-factly, without artifice or self-consciousness.

And, so, was the Will O’Leary Rule born. (The Will O’Leary rule is alternatively known as WWWD — What Would Will Do?)

Now, any time I’m on the verge of any calamity, catastrophe, or cataclysm, I look for one person who appears to be fully composed — or blissfully ignorant. I don’t care. I don’t attempt to judge the person’s cognitive acuity. I don’t look for signs of sentience. I don’t check for vital signs. I just take comfort and go back to sleep.

No worries. No seat belt.

Thank you, Will.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. Mark, like you and Laura, flying is often an excuse for sleeping. In fact, my wife reports “Honestly, you can sleep anywhere.” It’s generally true. When flying, I advise business associates not to be offended if I nod off when backing away from the gate.

    In terms of the seat belts, my high-school buddy and I were on a cross-country jaunt the summer of our graduation and came upon a head-on collision on Hwy 93 out of Ely, Nevada – what was then a truly desolate stretch of road. Maybe somebody fell asleep? It didn’t matter. It wasn’t pretty. “Click!” And it’s been “Click!” ever since.

    Beautiful writing, as always, Mark. I was right there with you at 30,000 feet. (Please put your belt on, OK?)

    • Jeff, I think the comfort of flying for me is that I feel unreachable, untouchable. The only responsibilities I care about when I’m flying are the pilot’s. And most pilots I know are better at flying than I am. 😉

      I have to admit that in my two years as a hospital orderly, I saw all manner of horrors attributable to seatbelt abstinence. I’ll try to get over myself. I promise.

      Thank you for your note and for your encouragement, my friend.

  2. Another great article, Mark! I love the honesty and wit with which you right. You had me gasping, chuckling, and nodding my head. Like you, I’m usually asleep before the plane takes off. I always used to be an aisle seat person, but have shifted to the window seat – ever a place to rest my head. And I love being above the clouds.
    Thanks for sharing this story with us, and for the logic behind WWWD. I like it!

    • Laura, you have an uncanny knack for making my day(s). You’ve done it again.

      I’m happy to share credit for this story with Grandpa O’Brien, the quintessential Irish storyteller, and with Will O’Leary, without whom we’d be absent one very important rule.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments.

  3. Thank YOU, Mark, for this article. Had I been in that plane under those conditions I would have been in full panic mode. Not that going into full panic mode takes much for me to get into but planes are a mode of transportation I have used in over 30 years. If I can’t get someplace via the New York City subway system or a bus or a lift from somebody I stay home. You, Mark, have tremendous insight, humor, and sense. I hope you never change.

    • Thank you for your very generous comments, Joel. I think it’s a little late for me to change, at this point. So, you’re stuck with me. 😉

      I’m so grateful for your encouragement. I’ll take it as incentive to keep writing.

    • Mark, I don’t feel that I am stuck with you. You wrote a terrific article that I identified with. I really hope you will keep writing.

  4. I’m a seat belt guy, I don’t even think about it too much. I have gone to an accident scene, many years ago, which my wife’s younger brother amazingly survived, with hardly any injuries to note. He had passed another vehicle at a high rate of speed on two lane highway, over steered on his attempt to get back in the correct lane, hit the shoulder and continued into a nearby ditch and then catapulted, end over end multiple times. Before the second front flip, he was ejected out the rear window. That he was not wearing a seat belt saved his butt, and his life.

    During the summers of 2005 through 2011, I was the head chaperone for the high school marching band that both of my kids participated in. Being responsible for 60 to 100 teenagers is good reason to question my sanity, but I loved it and made many great friends and tons of memories. The kids from the band during those years may be able to recite the rules that I always recited on the first night of band camp every summer. One of the top five was always “There will be no screaming, none, ever. It will require at least one dead body, another one close to death and several gallons of blood visible before any type of screaming will go unpunished. It’s not useful, helpful or necessary.” I learned early on that kids at that age feed off of your moods, your body language, your temperament and adrenaline and circumstances can lead to untold bad decisions, stupidity and recklessness. I once was awakened from a dead sleep in the middle of the night by one of the staff telling me that a kid was going into diabetic shock. The next day, everyone marveled at my calm demeanor and how I just gave directions calmly, without shouting and kept all of the kids calm. Everyone was back in bed in less than an hour. High school marching bands and their staff need sleep, and drama is the enemy of sleep.

    Some people live for drama and have a need to become overwrought and overexcited. It serves no purpose other than to attract sympathy. Sympathy is for funerals. Young Mr. O’Leary is to be commended and imitated. Events, as they happen to us, needn’t be exacerbated so that others will be impressed or made to feel sorry for us.

    • Tom, that is the most sane thing I’ve read in a very long time. “Sympathy is for funerals.” I love that.

      I learned the wisdom you just dispensed the first time I watched my older son, Sean, coach his first basketball game. He was 22. His players were sixth graders. Midway through the first quarter, the wheels were falling off. His team was getting blown out, and his players were coming completely unglued. I looked at the bench. Sean was completely composed. He let the mayhem continue for another minute or two. Then he called a timeout.

      He didn’t yell. He didn’t berate or belittle. He calmly reminded his players what they’d learned in practice. He reminded them to be disciplined. And he told them what he knew they were capable of. He was right. They went back out on the court and won the game.

      At 22, Sean already knew the last thing his players needed at that moment was to see him freaking out.

      I also love your story about the marching band. Those kids were lucky to have you.

      Thank you for sharing your story and for your thoughtful comments here.

  5. Interesting article Mark. I think Will O’Leary would appreciate his legacy if he were to read this article today. Perhaps he was O’Irish like you, and so your thick skulls will always get you through more turbulence than you realize… It’s the Luck of the Irish!

    • “Get you through more turbulence than you realize.” I love that notion, Aaron. And it’s perfectly consistent with my charmed life. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.