4 Leadership Lessons from Professional Pilots

Entrepreneurs are a lot like pilots. They’re goal-oriented and disciplined. To be effective, they must project confidence and competence at all times. And, like pilots, they know that if they screw up, they’ll take other people down with them.

Professional pilot and change management consultant Moe Glenner explores that similarity in his new book Selfish Altruism. It turns out there are many valuable leadership lessons you can learn about how to run your company by taking note of the behaviors that get pilots into trouble. Here are four of them:

1. Don’t assume you always know best. 

What Glenner calls “know-it-all” pilots can get themselves and their passengers killed. “Consider the pilot who argues with air traffic control or ignores weather forecasts… or even ignores indications that the airplane is not performing optimally,” he writes.

Business leaders make the same mistakes, he adds, “based on the premise that ‘I already know everything there is to know and the directive conflicts with my already established knowledge.'” The problem, of course, is that nobody really knows it all. “There is always more to learn and there are always people who know more than we do,” Glenner notes. So when someone gives you a piece of advice, or tells you to follow a rule, at least take the time to consider that person may know something you don’t.

2. Don’t react to problems too quickly.

When a flight goes wrong, it’s natural to feel compelled to do somethingimmediately to fix the situation. But an overly fast reaction can do more harm than good, Glenner explains. “Let’s say the pilot has discovered that his plane is losing altitude. An impulsive reaction might be to pull back on the yoke. The problem with this is that pulling back (without doing anything else) decreases airplane speed and may in fact cause a stall/spin reaction.”

There are many situations, in flight and in business, when something goes wrong and a quick response is needed. But it should always be a well-thought-out response. “The remedy for impulsive behavior is the realization that there is time to think and then implement appropriately,” Glenner writes. “A pilot needs to check all his instruments (quickly) to identify what the real cause is.” It could be that power was cut inadvertently, or weather may be causing the unexpected descent. Once the pilot has determined the cause of the problem, he or she can take appropriate action without risking making things even worse.

3. Don’t believe you’re invulnerable.

It’s human nature to think that because nothing has gone wrong so far, nothing ever will, but that’s the kind of thinking that causes planes crashes.

For instance, Glenner describes the three sides of a rectangle that a pilot must fly to land properly on a runway. Each corner requires the correct turn and altitude, but these can be thrown off by weather and other conditions. “Many pilots believe this can’t happen to them,” he writes. “Over time they fail to be as diligent or continue to educate themselves on the potential dangers. This complacency has caused many an accident, often with tragic results.”

In the business world, Glenner notes, the same kind of thinking can lead companies to either dismiss a risk, or have only vague plans for dealing with it. That creates a greater risk, he writes, “the risk that something can derail a project without a set plan to remedy it.”

Instead, he advises a formal risk assessment discussion, resulting in a written plan for dealing with adverse contingencies. While you won’t be able to anticipate every problem, you can give yourself the best chance to come out all right if a problem does occur.

4. Don’t go it alone.

Some pilots–and some entrepreneurs–develop a macho, I-can-do-it attitude that leads to trouble when they try to take on more than they can handle. “Consider a pilot who only had three hours of sleep the night before a flight,” Glenner writes. “For commercial pilots, this would likely be a no-go factor. For private pilots, it should also be a no-go factor, except some pilots believe they can make the flight, lack of sleep notwithstanding.”

The dangers of this behavior in an airplane are obvious, but it’s dangerous in business too. If you are struggling with too much responsibility, too many hours of work, or tasks that you don’t have the know-how to do–get help. (Here are some tips for learning to be a better delegator.) Toughing it out when you’re over your head is bad for your business. If you’re not well-rested and thinking clearly, your company, and its employees, may pay the price.

 
 
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