Flying lessons for leaders

The training of pilots has parallels for training business leaders.

There is a growing need for the development of business leaders who are well equipped to do the job they’re employed to do, and do it with a high level of proficiency and a low number of errors. Commercial pilots have exactly the same requirements – high proficiency and no errors. One of the ways to develop highly competent business leaders is to use methodologies that are used to teach commercial pilots to fly. Here are just three of the methods used when teaching flying skills that will help develop better leaders.

Follow the process

When people are taught to fly, they’re given disciplines and routines. They first learn some theory so they know something about the subject. Then, before they get into an aircraft, they are given a briefing so they are informed as to what they’re going to do, why they’re going to do it, how – what the steps are – and also told something of the airmanship issues of being aware of their surroundings.

During flying lessons, a student pilot is told to watch a particular exercise and then is given a chance to perform the exercise themselves which gives them a little experience. After this, they are always debriefed, where they have the opportunity to talk about the experience. The process therefore is: experience, briefing, experience and debriefing, which results in a perfect action learning cycle.

Learning to fly involves a very clear methodology that the learner goes through. This allows for the basic building blocks of the mechanical skills of flying to be broken down. You can do this in some respect with management skills and use the same method to help someone learn international business acumen. You examine what international business acumen is and you deconstruct what that means in terms of capabilities. You then break it down and you design programmes that are based on components of that, then you take the learner through learning skills which compound each other. When learning to fly, you don’t learn one thing, then another, then another, all separately. You learn something which is added to the previous skill and another which is added to that and so on, until you build up a rich capability set which in the end leads to mastery.

People think that you can learn about management from a book or on a course and then you will be able to manage people. Management isn’t at all like that. Management, like flying, is a skill that you practise until you make a decreasing number of mistakes. And so you get to mastery. The path from novice to mastery is thus a decreasing series of mistakes.

Do systematic scans

Another thing you have to do when teaching someone to fly is help them keep awake and aware. You therefore have to get people to an appropriate level of awareness. They shouldn’t be so mentally aroused that they become neurotic, but you don’t want them too relaxed that they could fall asleep.

Because keeping pilots awake and aware in an aircraft is very important, you don’t just expect a pilot to look for other aircraft. Pilots are therefore taught to undertake what are called systematic scans which involve looking at specific sections of the field of view to ensure that they notice the often unnoticeable. Pilots must be sufficiently disciplined to go through the process of systematically scanning to make sure they’ve seen everything.

Do we systematically scan everything in business? Not really – people generally do random scans. The value of a systematic scan is that you start to notice various things that are very important and notice things that are far away in order to act in good time.

Reduce the power distance

To prevent pilot error and ensure a high level of safety and efficiency in flight, there must be no power distance between captains and co-pilots.

In 1972, a British European Airways Trident took off from Heathrow. On the flight deck was an experienced, old-school captain flying the aeroplane. He was known to be grumpy and difficult, and frequently shouted at his junior co-pilots. In the right-hand seat sat his young co-pilot, just out of training, who knew the reputation of the captain and was actually very scared of him.

Picture the scene … The aircraft is gaining altitude and the co-pilot notices that the airspeed is a bit low. As the airspeed gets even lower, the young co-pilot starts to get a bit worried and looks at his captain, expecting him to take corrective action and configure the high-lift devices correctly. Out of desperation, he says, “Captain, the airspeed is a bit low.”

“Hurrumph,” comes back the response.

The co-pilot repeats what he has just said and the captain grunts once again, so the junior co-pilot just shuts up … and the Trident suffers a deep stall three minutes into the flight and crashes near the town of Staines, killing all 118 people on board.

The investigation into the disaster revealed something interesting. What had been happening was that the captain was having a heart attack at the time and the co-pilot had been too scared to challenge him or take corrective action because of the power distance that existed between them. As a result of that incident, however, changes were made that changed flying for ever.

It emerged after the world-wide credit crunch in 2008 that people working at Societe Generale, Barings Bank and other places before the crunch had noticed certain things happening and had talked about them. They had however never thought to raise their concerns with anyone higher up the chain because of the power distance that existed.

The higher the power distance between business leaders and their employees, the higher the risk for things to go wrong. Leaders, like pilots, should be taught to reduce the power distance to ensure that errors are picked up while they are still small and inconsequential.

Jon Foster-Pedley is the Dean of Henley Business School, Africa, www.henleysa.ac.za. He is a former airline captain, and was a flying instructor and aerobatics pilot for 15 years as well as a senior executive in the European aerospace industry.

Flying lessons for leaders March 2014

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