What Leadership Lessons Can ‘High Flyers’
Learn From Professional Pilots?

See also: Risk Management

Steering a business through turbulent times is anything but easy, I’m sure you will agree. But the freedom that comes from plotting your own course and making decisions that allow you to reach new horizons is nothing short of exhilarating. How many similarities are there between running a business and flying an aeroplane? In all honesty, probably many more than you think.

If you’re in a leadership position and you’ve always wondered what it’s like to be in charge of an aeroplane, or getting your pilot’s licence is a long-held dream, now is the time to have a go and see how it feels. Here’s a great selection of flying experiences and lessons you can book to see the world from a completely new perspective.

Back in the realms of business, we’ve put together six valuable lessons that the world of aviation can teach us. You can absolutely use them as transferable skills that are just as applicable in the commercial world, with your feet firmly back on the ground.

1.Success is 90% preparation

We’re all familiar with the 7Ps, that old adage of the British Army that ‘Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents P*** Poor Performance’, no? Well, the exact same principle applies to being a pilot. Before each flight, there’s a ‘Before Take-Off Checklist’ that the airline captain and the first officer must complete before each journey.

When it comes to business planning, there are strategic objectives to be set and shorter-term milestones and goals to be achieved, with key performance indicators to be measured against progress. In business as in aviation, it is clear that preparation is everything.

2. Give yourself options

When it comes to flying a plane, there are two key enablers - runway and altitude - to get airborne and stay there safely, but only if you use them properly. During take-off, the pilot will want to have the entire runway at their disposal even though not all of it may be needed. The extra runway length provides additional options, just in case you need to slow down because of engine performance issues or to gain enough height to clear buildings near the airport - it could be a matter of life and death. The same goes for altitude. Rather than flying at minimum altitude, it makes sense to leave some headroom in case of unforeseen problems.

Apply the same principles to the business world and ensure you have an extra cushion of the most important resources to draw on as and when you need them, be it cash or investors, key employees, professional networks or reference clients.

3. Never lose sight of the competition

While the sky may seem endless and just waiting to be discovered, you won’t be the only one in flight. On the contrary, the air may be swarming with other airborne traffic vying for space. Take your eye off the controls for a moment and there’s a very real risk of a mid-air collision, which would be the worst-case scenario. Constant vigilance and a watchful eye on the other air traffic participants is the only way to minimise the risk of something going seriously wrong.

In the world of business, an awareness of competitor activity is key to being able to chart your own course, protecting your interests while heading towards your destination.

4. Don’t fear turbulence; work with it

Every journey has its ups and downs, whether in business or in the air, that’s for sure. Wherever this ‘turbulence’ originates from, it may well slow you down, throw you off balance and temporarily divert your course. But don’t let it shake your core beliefs. Instead of giving into any deep-seated fear that you will fail, learn to navigate the choppy skies with patience and skill.

Go along with any challenges that come your way, adjusting your course slightly as you go. Ultimately, you will understand that you do have control over the direction your business is going in, and how high or low it can go.

5. Use challenges as opportunities for growth

Whether you find yourself in a flying lesson or in the boardroom, sooner or later you will be faced with a variety of difficult challenges. Some of them may feel super scary because you think you’re going to lose control. Not so, as long as you see a challenge for what it is: an opportunity to be tested in difficult or dangerous circumstances. You can learn to control your aircraft under challenging conditions. You can also learn to accept a business challenge and deal with it – feel the fear and do it anyway, as they say.

The more you are adept at dealing with and resolving conflict, the better you will get at handling similar problems next time.

6. Sharpen your decision making skills

Pilots are trained to react with immense skill in a variety of critical situations. They can fly in near zero visibility, or make safe emergency landings in an open field or without engine power. But they are also taught an even greater skill: to make the right decisions and thus avoid getting into dangerous situations in the first place. If you are in a leadership position, there really is nothing more important than effective planning and decision making to navigate to your goal. Collect data, plan well and analyse key decisions critically - it will serve you much better than relying on your ability to ‘wing’ it.

Being a team leader in a commercial organisation can give you an immense sense of freedom, not unlike the feeling of taking to the skies in an aeroplane. You can plot your own course for the future, have the ability and agility to change direction quickly if needed, and of course the opportunity of gaining a totally different perspective of the world in which you are commercially active. Be prepared to encounter some turbulence now and then along the way and, if you take it in your stride rather than living in fear, you should be able to watch your business soar to great heights.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Leadership

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Learn more about the skills you need to be an effective leader.

Our eBooks are ideal for new and experienced leaders and are full of easy-to-follow practical information to help you to develop your leadership skills.

About the Author

Dakota Murphey is a writer based in Brighton, specialising in management training, HR and effective talent acquisition. Having authored pieces for numerous online and print magazines, Dakota has undertaken independent studies to discover how managerial styles and practices can positively impact business productivity.