Everything I ever needed to know about being an executive I learned as a Pilot. Flying is in my blood. It has been since the earliest days. I love the art of it and I love the view. I even share the same birthday as Wilbur Wright. In my 20’s I was a Bush Pilot in Northern Canada these days I fly for fun. I’m particularly fond of helicopters — perhaps the coolest machines ever invented. It’s being a pilot that taught me how to be an executive.
The cardinal rule of having a pilots license is to accept it as a license to learn. You never stop acquiring both skills and experience. Being a pilot means committing to becoming a life long learner. To be an effective CEO also means to become a life long learner. Aviation requires you to always apply what you learn. The true and diligent application of what you learn is as essential in business if you want to evolve with the times and the challenges.
Flying is safe because it is one of the few industries where we institutionally learn from the collective mistakes of others. In flying it’s ok to make minor errors but never mistakes and knowing the difference is an essential skill. The same goes for business strategy — small errors yes, mistakes never!
Flying forces you to expect the unexpected. It keeps you always on your toes. Complacency will kill you in the air just as easily as it will kill your company. Pilots and executives can’t afford to be complacent.
In aviation, you must learn and practice the skills essential to do the task. It takes time to learn and you always have a mentor, that’s why when you start flying serious machines you generally start as a copilot. Same goes for business, mentors help us learn the facts, coping and leadership skills that books, procedures and training alone cannot.
In aviation, you always have a destination. You begin with and end in mind. You research the route and plan for it. You learn as much as you can about the track you are going to fly and the dangers along the way. You study weather and try to predict its effects on your mission. You figure out what to do if you encounter the unexpected — you take nothing for granted. You rely on checklists, procedures and most importantly good judgment. You know what to do when danger lurks and you know how to spot it. Great executives do the same. We all want clear weather for our journeys but we also know that the real world can get nasty. In aviation, we keep situational awareness at all times so we can see when things are going off the rails. It’s the recognition of potential disaster that lets us avoid it. We mitigate risk by keeping on top of the situation and our options open. Pilots learn to spot disaster before it spots them. These Same skills are essential for being an effective executive.
When things break in an aircraft we react fast but, methodically. Aviation is an industry of checklists. We think through our problems. We keep emotions out of it and focus on resolving the issues. Panic will kill so it’s simply not an option. Never lose your head. Same goes for business. If the engine quits you must land and not give up. Same rules for executives. You don’t bailout unless everyone has a parachute and only if its the very last resort.
As a pilot, you would be a fool to micromanage what you don’t understand. Part of flying is trusting in the competence of engineers both those that design and those that maintain. Sitting in a helicopter cockpit with massive metal blades spinning five feet from your head you learn to trust in the fact that people can do their jobs and do them well. If you could not trust you would be paralyzed with fear — think about it metal blades like a giant guillotine. Pilots delegate much trust to capable and reliable people and don’t really think twice about it. People who do a specialized job know more about their job than you do. Trusting them is essential to putting your energy where it needs to be — flying the machine. As an executive, you also must trust that qualified people know what they are doing. Avoid micromanaging what is beyond your control or your expertise and you can focus on the part of the task that is your responsibility. Trust in delegation, it works.
Most crashes are caused by human factors. Most businesses fail because of human factors. Understand as CEO that a major screw up is probably going to be your fault — it’s appropriately humbling.
You never get in an aircraft knowing you won’t complete the flight successfully. Same goes for business try to avoid doing things that you think could get you killed. In aviation, it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground. Know the odds of success before you try. I’m amazed how many business startups are nothing more than suicide missions — best avoid those. Your shareholders will be appreciative and so will your resume.
You fly with the fuel you need to accomplish the flight plus a reserve and if you can, you add more. In aviation, we think of fuel as time in our tanks. In business, the fuel is money and just like fuel in an aircraft its supply is finite. Most aircraft won’t fly for long without fuel just as most businesses won’t succeed without money. Keep a careful eye on your fuel because when it runs out you are going down. Same in business. What’s in your tanks or in your bank must be watched carefully. Life and livelihood depend on it.
Play nice with others but suffer no fools. In professional aviation, there is an expectation that everyone knows his or her job to a very high standard. The cockpit is no place for those not up to the task. In aviation, the incompetent or uncommitted don’t get to fly. Same should apply in business but seldom is it done with the same vigor as aviation. The only acceptable standard is a high standard and everyone needs to know that. Successful executives appreciate the best and dismiss the rest.
A pilot with no confidence will get themselves killed just as a pilot with too much confidence will also get themselves killed. Flying teaches you to know both where the comfort zone and the stupid zone exist. Knowing the boundary between the two is where you find the confidence to push almost to the limit but never past. It gets the job done but does not get you killed. The same logic applies to starting, growing and managing businesses.
In business, we are told it’s ok to fail. Not once in my 28 years of flying has anyone ever told me it’s ok to fail. So remind me why it’s ok in business? I get it, it happens, sometimes things just break, just as airplanes crash but, I’ve never known it to be ok when an airplane crashes. In aviation, it’s the captain’s responsibility to keep the thing in the air just as it’s an executive’s job to keep it together. There is a price to failing and it’s usually high both financially and emotionally — do whatever you can to avoid it. It’s not ok to fail — to fail is to crash. Think about that the next time you board a flight. Great executives understand the seriousness of their responsibility just as the pilot in command of your 777 does. In aviation, we divert before we fail.
Know the worst that can happen so you can deal with it when it does. That pilot flying you from KBOS to KSFO gets to sit in a simulator every six months and get hell tossed at them. It’s how they handle the challenges that decides if they get to keep their job. The reason this is done is to make sure that when the unthinkable happens they can think. Great business leaders know the dangers lurking and have developed the skills to survive them — they also can think when faced with the unthinkable.
Aviation taught me a great number of very high stakes lessons at a very early age. The greatest gift of aviation just like in business is that sometimes when you set off over the horizon what awaits you will exhilarate, and amaze you. It’s mitigating the challenges along the way that gets you where you are going. In flight as it is in business.