Leadership: like piloting a plane

During a recent outing with a group of friends, one of them made a comment regarding the best approach to managing a team of direct reports. Apparently, leaders can decide to sit on the pedestal and observe what is happening to their teams or get their feet wet by getting directly involved in team tasks.

The above begs the question: should leaders be paid to simply watch over others? Does that make them worth the money they are paid? As a leader, have you been given 360 feedback by your direct reports that points to you not pulling your weight?

Like a pilot, a leaders job is to 'observe' systems integrity, but not to work

Like a pilot, a leader’s job is to ‘observe’ systems integrity, but not to work

Is it not the job of a leader to ensure that all the relevant elements of an organization are working well and that they bring value to the organization? It is not far fetched to write on this blog that a leader is paid to observe and identify any dysfunction in the system, and not to do work that their team should be doing.

By only observing what their teams are doing and not taking on real team tasks, leaders are like aircraft pilots. Pilots take a position in the cockpit – they watch the aircraft systems and how the aircraft is responding to a particular situation in the environment. The number one job of a pilot is to safely get you to your destination, by paying attention to every detail of an aircraft’s continued-integrity. Pilots do not help stewards to serve and sell duty-free items on the aircraft

The Effectiveness lab juxtaposes below, what pilots at Monarch do to get their aircraft and passengers from point A to point B vs. the life of a leader in the modern organization. It is a telling narrative.

The Monarch pilot’s journey:

Generally speaking, one pilot will fly the whole of one leg or ‘sector’ as we call it, and the other pilot will fly the return.

In some weather conditions, and also at some more demanding destinations, take-offs or landings need to be carried out by Captains or more experienced co-pilots, and this can inform our decision. So it could be either the Captain or the co-pilot flying the aircraft.

The take-off is always performed manually. You will hear us apply an initial amount of power as we start to roll down the runway. This brings both engines into the bottom of the range where thrust will build rapidly; as they both stabilise we then apply take-off thrust. In most cases we do not need full power for take-off, which saves noise, engine life, and ultimately fuel.

The autopilot is selected on not long after the landing gear is retracted. It would be possible to fly the whole sector manually, but the sheer volume of radio calls, frequency changes, configuration and route changes, would keep the non-flying pilot fully occupied. Better to let the (very effective) autopilot take the strain, allowing both pilots to concentrate on the efficient and comfortable conduct of the flight.

Although we have loaded our flight plan into the navigation computer, we will be given many route and altitude changes – indeed I would be very disappointed if we weren’t. Once airborne, ATC (Air Traffic Control) will usually be giving us more direct routings, speed increases and earlier climbs, which takes us out of their airspace more quickly, allowing more aircraft to depart. It also saves us time and fuel – so everybody wins.

Once we have reached our cruising altitude we can relax a little. We will still be given route and altitude changes, and very many radio frequency changes; but the pilot ‘flying’ through the autopilot will be mainly monitoring aircraft systems and navigation, whilst the other pilot will be handling communications and checking enroute weather, amongst other things.

If we needed to land unexpectedly for any reason we would need about 120 miles to make a comfortable descent and landing: so we will be keeping an eye (and ear) on weather reports for suitable airports at that sort of distance from our track.
As the top of descent approaches, we will already know the destination weather and runway in use – the interplay of speed and altitude restrictions mean that any change (particularly in runway) will alter the descent point. By the time the seat-belt sign is switched on, at around 20000ft, we will be well into the approach, probably being given headings and speeds to fly by the approach radar controller.

We try to keep the speed high (around 300mph) and the flaps retracted as long as possible, to save time and fuel, but as we start turning in towards the runway we will be reducing speed, which means eventually extending the flaps (as the increased wing area and shape mean we can fly more slowly). In clear weather at some smaller airports, usually abroad, we will save time by disconnecting the autopilot for a fully manual visual approach and landing, but at busy airports or in the cloud we will be flying the aircraft via the autopilot onto an instrument approach.

I think the landing is the best part of the flight for any pilot. Whereas the take-off is fairly consistent, every landing is different – no matter how much experience the pilot has. On every landing, there is a unique and shifting variation in weather and particularly the wind, requiring us to blend instrument and visual flying. To assist us the aircraft radio altimeter makes a synthetic voice call-out of our height above the runway:

“100 … 50 … 30 … 20 … 10 … ”

And then we are down. On short runways we use full reverse thrust; longer runways allow us to use idle reverse thrust to save noise, engine wear and of course fuel. As we taxi in, and if time and conditions permit, we shut down one engine (for the same reasons).

The leader’s observer journey:

Even a system that is as complex as an aircraft is captained by one pilot (leader) at a time. Too many bosses running the show will confuse even the very best of leaders; in some instances, organizations operating in complex environments require a matrix structure to function effectively. However, a matrix structure is not a reason to have too many leaders on the pedestal. At the helm of an organization, should be one leader – a leader, as the pilot, that observes more and does less hands-on work in teams

Like flying a plane, a lot of hands-on (read manual) work is done prior to going full thrust – leadership journeys at organizations do not always start with the ‘full engine thrust’ – new leaders take time to observe what is happening at the organization they have taken over; they study their teams; understand the team strengths and weaknesses; define the direction the organisation should take, invest energy in writing a strategic plan for the entity, and we dare say, do the customary organization structure rejigging. Most of the latter processes need a hands-on approach by the leader, but do not necessarily use a lot of energy.

Equivalent to the plane’s auto-pilot, after a leader defines the direction the organization has to take and provides the framework to align the organization to the new leadership, it is time to handover to the rank and file staff at the organization. Monarch puts it very well: ‘auto pilot takes the strain, allowing both pilots to concentrate on the efficient and comfortable conduct of the flight.’ This is the section on the leadership journey, where the novice think that the leader is earning ‘easy’ money – to the contrary, it is the most treacherous part of the journey, where missing dysfunction can get leaders torpedoed

Although pilots load their flight plan into the navigation computer, they will be given many route and altitude changes by the air-traffic control people. Yes, even with a sound business plan in hand – good leaders will know that ‘battle plans do not survive contact with the enemy.’ There is always the need for the emergent strategy to address unforeseen events.

The equivalent of ‘cruising altitude’ for the pilot, humans are at their weakest when things are going to plan – It is at this stage that leaders should observe and look out for any dangers in their systems. When all is well in the organization, the leaders ‘observer’ status ought to be at its best.

The modern leadership game is such that leaders not only constantly look out for the threats that can bring their organization to their knees, but also how to mitigate such threats. The latter is the pilot’s equivalent of looking for an airport within a 120-mile radius for possible emergency landing. Amongst the reasons the Effectiveness lab discourages leaders performing more than the ‘observer’ status role, is that, away from their pedestal, they may miss the early symptoms of an impending disaster at their organizations.

We keep going back to leaders focusing on their core mandate – ‘observer’ status

Equivalent to a pilot landing an aircraft after a long trans-Atlantic flight, any leader achieving target bottom line results or positive impact for those in the not for profit sector, is the most rewarding experience of leadership.

So for those of you that equate the leader’s chief ‘observer’ status to: laziness, not pulling weight, earning money on the cheap – well, think about the aircraft pilot – a pilot is in a tiny cabin for hours, only watching and thinking, as the stewards walk and push trollies on the aircraft. Yet, without the pilot ‘observing’ and ‘interpreting’ what they see and hear, aircraft may never make it to their final destinations

Leaders – please ‘watch’ your teams do their work and calibrate as needed – that is what gets you paid every month!

Categories: You, the Leader!

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