Airplanes are like organizationsThe connections between planes, pilots, flying and quintessential leadership have been percolating in my mind for several years. 

Each time there is a new air disaster, these connections come back to the front of my thinking and expand as I find deeper meaning and more interrelated threads between these on-the-surface seemingly dissimilar things.

They are very similar, as this post will demonstrate, because the same core mechanisms exist among them.

Let’s start at the basic connections. Planes are like organizations. Pilots are the leaders who are responsible for the planes. How pilots fly (lead) planes depends on whether the project (the flight) is successful or unsuccessful. (Passengers are customers who pay for and expect success every time.)

The health of a plane is a factor in successful outcomes. Like organizations, if a plane is poorly or sloppily maintained, has outdated equipment and/or software, and has major structural or mechanical problems that compromise its integrity, that will limit and hinder the ability of the pilot to lead the plane to a successful outcome: a safe landing and delivery of passengers to their destination.

The leadership ability of the pilot is also a factor in successful outcomes. This encompasses several areas, including experience, skills, health (vision and heart come to mind), lifestyle (getting enough sleep, alcohol and/or drug consumption, and allergies that are treated with medication), and attitude toward the job and the customers (selfless or self-centered).

How the pilot flies the plane is a third crucial factor in successful outcomes. And, while not the only factor, this factor can often mean the difference between successfully averting disaster or disastrously averting success when problems with the plane or another pilot arise. 

Why?

Pilots have choices as to how they fly a plane. They can choose to manually fly the plane, relying on their critical thinking, their skills, and their experience, or they can choose to fly the plane on autopilot, which is automation – often out-of-date and based on a limited (because humans write it) scope of scenarios under ideal conditions – software installed on all commercial planes. 

Pilots Are LeadersResearch has shown that when pilots depend on automation software primarily to fly their planes, they lose critical thinking skills. They also lose touch with the plane’s structure and instrumentation and how to use those to their greatest advantage – successful outcome – in emergency situations. Reaction time to crises is also considerably slower when pilots depend exclusively on autopilot to fly.

Too many inexperienced pilots depend solely on autopilot, which can lead to a disastrous outcome.

One of the more recent examples of this was the February 12, 2009 crash of Continental Connection Flight 3407 in Buffalo, NY, which killed 50 people (this included a man in the house the plane crashed into).

The pilots of Flight 3407 assumed that because they were flying on autopilot, they didn’t need to pay attention or monitor anything. Ice began to accumulate on the wings, making the plane heavier and dragging it down under the burgeoning weight, resulting in deceleration. The pilots didn’t notice.

Finally the plane began to stall as it descended. The pilot, inexperienced, confused, and panicked, pulled the stick shaker, which had alerted him to the impending stall of the engines, toward him instead of away from him. 19 seconds later the plane had crashed and 50 people were dead.

On the other end of this spectrum is the example of an experienced and highly-skilled pilot – ironically, almost a month before the crash in Buffalo, NY – who was flying USAirways Flight 1549 out of LaGuardia Airport in New York City. 

Captain Chelsey Sullenberger had just taken off from the runway when a flock of birds flew into the plane’s engines, stalling them both. Unable to maneuver back to LaGuardia or maneuver over to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, Captain Sullenberger was forced to land the plane in the Hudson River.

Because he was flying the plane manually, he was able to use his expertise and ability to think clearly in a time of crisis to accomplish a soft landing into the river, referred to as the Miracle on the Hudson, which kept the plane intact on impact and ensured the survival of all the passengers and crew.

For us as quintessential leaders, our experience, skills, attitudes, and how we choose to lead – on autopilot or manually – can also be the deciding factor in ultimate success (even if the only thing that amounts to is minimizing the impact of what is going to be a disaster no matter how we slice it) or ultimate failure.

As humans, autopilot is our default mode of operation. We are the sum of our biology, experiences, knowledge, attitudes, and skills. Some areas of our life depend on autopilot. Breathing is one of those. Imagine having to think about and manually having to force breath in and out of our lungs. We’d get nothing else accomplished in our lives but this because breath, more or less, is life.

So autopilot for some things is an absolute necessity. However, where we run into trouble with autopilot in our lives is in the areas of experience, knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Much depends on when we acquired them, how we acquired them, and how we apply them from that point on.

Most of our autopilot programming, if you will, is acquired early on in our lives. Because we don’t have full knowledge of everything and we don’t have the maturity or resources to (a) realize that, and (b) do something to correct it, we end up with a lot of faulty and outdated programming in our autopilot that we often employ the rest of our lives, resulting in the same old failures – some disastrous and some not – over and over again throughout our lives.

At some point, we would hope, maturity – and getting tired of the same old, same old – would direct us to start flying our lives manually so that we can figure out how to successfully navigate through, around, and beyond the things that our autopilot keeps crashing us in the middle of. (Sorry, Grammar Nazis, that preposition has to be at the end of that sentence. :-))

Quintessential leaders recognize that our autopilot is faulty and outdated. We understand that the only way to lead is manually.

Why?

Because leading manually ensures that we are:

  1. Fully engaged all the time
  2. Maximizing our current level of aggregate experience, expert skills, full knowledge, and optimized attitudes
  3. successful outcome quintessential leaderCritically thinking about obstacles, problems, options, and solutions
  4. Able to respond in real time without panic or chaos
  5. Able to ensure successful outcomes even in disastrous situations
  6. Updating – or, in some cases, rewriting from scratch – our autopilot with new and corrected code to use in future similar situations

So, my fellow quintessential leaders, now is the time for us to look in our own lives to discern the current state of our planes (organizations, families, congregations, schools, etc.), our piloting (leadership) experience, skills and attitudes, and whether we as pilots choose to fly (lead) on autopilot or manually.

What do we see? What needs to change? What do we need to change?

Are we willing to commit to what we can change and what we need to change, no matter how difficult it will be, how much resistance – from ourselves and others – we might encounter, and how much time and effort it will take?

If we’re striving to be quintessential leaders, the answer is unequivocally “Yes.” 

But here is the heart of the matter. What is your answer?

Comments
  1. […] If we answered “no” or “it depends” to any or all of these questions, then we need to examine our attitudes for the unquintessential leadership “what’s in it for me?” mindset that has somehow begun to creep into our autopilot programming. […]

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