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Flying Lessons for Leaders and Managers

I’ve always been fascinated by powered flight. From the earliest days of aviation to the heroes that pushed the boundaries of technology and braved combat high above the earth, it has been a lifelong interest. I think there are some “flying lessons” every manager can use on the ground or in the air.

Fly the plane
A friend of mine, a commercial airline pilot, described the circumstances of an airliner crash from a National Transportation Safety Board accident report. The investigation revealed that during the landing approach the entire cockpit crew had become fixated on a warning light that seemed to be on for no apparent reason. The aircraft had been set on autopilot on a fixed rate of descent and flew itself into the ground while both the pilot and co-pilot were distracted. The lesson—somebody has to remember that their job is to “fly the plane.” Even the most flat, participatory organizations ultimately have someone who has to make the final decision.

In another article, I described the “Paralysis of Analysis” where a continual search for more and better information can result in overshooting the optimum point of decision making, resulting in a less desirable outcome. If you’re in charge, you can’t be distracted by operational details to the point of failing to lead. You need to understand what’s going on around you and contribute where you can, but don’t lose sight of the overall situation. Maintain situational awareness.

Set priorities
The late U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Robin Olds, a World War II and Viet Nam “ace” fighter pilot, described what it was like in the cockpit of a jet fighter on a combat mission:
Your senses were being assaulted by sights and sounds conveying information vital to your status, both offensively and defensively. Multiple audio signals told you your missile’s radar was alert and whether your enemy’s radar was trying to track you. At the same time, your eyes had to scan your instruments and the air and ground. Suddenly, surface to air missiles the size of telephone poles could be seen rising at supersonic speed toward you. Instinctively, you wanted to start weaving, hoping they would all miss. But, the best way to avoid them was to systematically pick the most threatening one, dodge it, and then dodge the next one, and so on.

The lesson—set priorities, whether it’s a threat you’re dealing with or a project to manage. Avoid multitasking. Even though we all try to do many things simultaneously, every study of multitasking says it only makes us think that we’re being more efficient. The fact is it’s an illusion. Avoid being “shot down” by working from priorities you’ve set for yourself.

Don’t panic
In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe described the calm nature of the pilots who “pushed the envelope” in aviation. Flying untested aircraft that were often at the bleeding edge of technology, they were responsible for monitoring everything going on around them and being able to describe it by radio and in writing without benefit of the sophisticated digital equipment of today. When things went wrong, as they often did, only their systematic reporting provided clues for fixing the problem and for advancing the frontier. He described Chuck Yeager, the first to break the sound barrier, as the archetype with his mellifluous southern drawl never sounding stressed, even when things around him were not going according to plan.

The lesson—as a leader, others will look to you to exhibit leadership qualities. In a crisis, your attitude alone can have a positive influence on those around you if you remain calm. This calmness also makes it easier to set the priorities necessary to organize the response to the situation.

Instincts are good—training is better
Early aviation pioneers didn’t have the benefit of instruments for flying at night or in bad weather; even an unexpected cloud bank could prove fatal. Relying on instincts and senses alone, many pilots’ lives were lost when they couldn’t see. Instinct may serve as an early warning radar that something is wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily tell you what to do. Training can. One of the city attorneys I worked with for many years had been a naval aviator during the Viet Nam war. He related that, during pilot training, the seemingly petty requirement about how you maintained your footlocker in the barracks didn’t sink in until later when you were sitting on the aircraft carrier catapult. Then you realized that it wasn’t about how you rolled your socks, it was about attention to detail.

The lesson—often your instincts will tell you when something “just isn’t right.” That’s fine; but how do you know what to do? Whether it’s an ethical question or a technical issue, you need training to know what to do about it. Merely reacting instinctively to a situation can make a bad situation worse. Training is available from many sources, often at no cost, through professional associations, risk management organizations, your agency’s insurance carrier, online, or through the resources of MRSC.

Through self-evaluation, you can identify areas where you may want additional training, and then look for it.

Do you feel lucky?
Pilots will probably tell you that in spite of all the training and experience, sometimes you’re just plain lucky.

I wanted to reorganize my staff into what I believed would be much better alignment, making the best use of their abilities, and reducing the number that directly reported to me. Unfortunately, among other things, it would require the demotion of one long-time, loyal, and capable manager. I didn’t know how she would react, and I expected some resistance, or at best, hurt feelings. On the morning I’d decided to explain the plan to the staff, I found a letter on my desk from the affected manager announcing her decision to retire. There was no way she could have been aware of what I was planning. It was simply good fortune that allowed me to announce that with her retirement I would be making several changes in our organizational structure. Because I was prepared, I could capitalize on the opportunity without causing the pain I wished to avoid.

The lesson—be prepared. Even with a “Plan A” and a “Plan B,” the unexpected may happen. If you’re lucky, and it’s a positive turn of events, so much the better. If not, you’ve got a better chance at organizational survival.

Perhaps these flying lessons can help you develop some of “the right stuff” for leadership.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Lynn Nordby

About Lynn Nordby

Lynn’s public sector career included over 30 years in local government management and experience in virtually all municipal services including the operations of a wide variety of municipal utilities. He is now retired.