by Frank Burroughs

Learning to fly a fixed-wing aircraft involves a certain amount (some may say a lot) of technical understanding of subjects like physics, meteorology, regulations, and even aviation jargon. In that sense it is like most other pursuits, each having their own technical base and special language. In training to become a private pilot I expected all of that. What I did not expect were so many lessons that apply to the even more complex challenges of leadership of yourself and others. This article is not about aviation although it uses the training process of aviation as the examples and illustrations. So, while some jargon and illustrations from flying are used it is not about that. But if you are a pilot (current, rusty, or even aspiring) I hope you will relate to and enjoy the connections. While a tiny percentage of the population (less than 0.1%) fly themselves around, all of us struggle to some degree with leading ourselves and others. If the lessons about leadership learned in flight training can help us all be better leaders, the 0.1% should not be the only ones who benefit!

There’s Just Too Much Information

In every endeavor in life the challenge of dealing with the vast amount of information available is a common denominator. This has always been true, but infinitely more so in today’s connected information environment. How as a leader does one ever know enough? How do you create time to lead and teach and mentor when there is always so much more to learn?

Flight training usually begins with building a knowledge base of fundamentals necessary to understand how an airplane flies and what the role of the pilot is in that process. The “Ground School” portion of training begins that process but applying that knowledge (even the small quantity one has at the beginning) is critical. Learning about control forces is good but feeling them is even better. Linking “book learning” with experience in a controlled environment is critical to the learning process. The student pilot from the very first lesson sits in the left seat of the cockpit, which is normally the lead pilot (pilot-in-command) position even though he or she is clueless. From that position they will learn to actually become the pilot-in-command by having an instructor in the right seat allow them to apply (badly at first) what they have learned and link the theory and the practice. The instructor creates a safe but challenging learning environment. As a student you know that no matter what you do, the instructor can recover you from it, but in doing so they will impart some immediate feedback that will stick in your brain.  That method of intellectual knowledge linked to the practical experience of applying that knowledge continues throughout the career of a pilot even when there is no instructor seated a foot away. In this fashion the seemingly overwhelming knowledge base required to pass the FFA Knowledge Exam (that’s what it is actually called) is possible. It becomes manageable because it is broken into small parts, but more importantly it is linked with application. Another very important phenomenon for leaders occurs here: one begins to separate what is really important to know from that which is merely nice to know. The many facts that will be tested on the FAA exam are not all equally critical to safe flying.

Once in the air the challenge of too much information becomes even more critical. Along with the base of knowledge you carry in your brain will come real-time information about weather, traffic, navigation, engine performance, passenger chatter, etc. In many ways modern avionics (the instruments that tell the pilot about the aircraft’s position, performance, nearby traffic, weather) have the potential to make this worse. Much like your Smartphone, Smart TV, or SmartXXX, there are capabilities that you do not need and cannot process at one time, but once they are there and flashing seemingly vital information in your face they are hard to ignore. Learning to ignore what isn’t needed at the time is a critical pilot skill. A phrase taught in flight training is the simple prioritization process to be used when things get too complicated: “Aviate, Navigate, Communicate”. This reminds the pilot that the first priority is to fly the *#%$ plane! It’s surprising in reading accident reporting how often this seemingly obvious priority is forgotten during a crisis. Navigation simply means figuring out where you are and where you are heading. Then correcting if the answer is into the side of a mountain! Finally communication is simply telling someone (other pilots or air traffic control) where you are and what you are doing. All are important but flying the plane is essential.

So, what are the lessons for leaders we may glean from the feeling of being overwhelmed by information as a student pilot and even as a seasoned veteran in the left seat?

  • When developing others or yourself, link “head knowledge” and practical application a little at a time. No one learned to swim by reading books about it, although books about it are helpful. Likewise there are many book chapters and videos about landing a plane. Some of the techniques and tips have been very helpful to me but there is no way to learn landing except doing it over and over and learning from your mistakes. Get some (not all!) knowledge relevant to your situation as a leader and apply it. As in flight training if the first application can be done in a safe, controlled environment that is best. If it can’t, at least link the two in a situation where if things go wrong it won’t cause great harm to anyone. Role playing a scenario with a trusted friend or fellow leader is a great way to practice and get some feedback before going live.Because there are so many books and videos on leadership it is tempting to soak in a tremendous amount before applying anything. You will become a better leader through applying what little you know with the intent to learn and change than you will by reading one more book. Your intent as a student pilot or as a leader is critically important. If you enter a learning environment with the intent to change there is a good chance you will! Check your intent before you watch another video or take another lesson. I often ask leaders who want more depth in a particular topic if they are fully applying what they already know? The answer (and for me also) is usually no. We have a preference for gaining more head knowledge over doing the hard work of applying the simpler things we already know.As a leader who may be in a position to teach others, use this same principle. Use the knowledge a learner has (even if it is tiny) in a way that allows them to apply it and learn from that experience. Then challenge them to get some more knowledge and repeat the process. The stickiness of the knowledge goes up as it is applied, even wrongly. Mistakes usually teach us more than getting it right on the first try. What if you simply got lucky on the first try? Challenge to failure, where safely possible, is a proven technique for learning and developing.
  • When you are actually applying your learning (i.e. doing your job) it is important to quickly discern relevant information from what is noise for the given situation. Prioritize the information you need and don’t get distracted by what is flashing in your face, i.e. “Aviate-Navigate-Communicate”. The more stressful the aviation or leadership situation, the more likely it is that discerning relevant from distracting will get mixed up. In both environments it is preparation and practice that keep the priorities straight. Prepare for the stress by rehearsing what you will want to know and be disciplined to filter out everything else. Emergency procedures are an essential part of flight training and ongoing good pilot skills. Likewise, when as a leader you face high stress levels have you prepared and practiced what information is needed? Unlike aviation there may not be one single leadership phrase that helps prioritize information, but one that comes pretty close for leaders is: “What-So What-Now What?”.

What: Describe the point.

So What: Why does it matter?

Now What: Where do we go from here?

Using this approach a leader can filter out the usual distractions that are both self-generated and come from others: explanations and excuses. Most of the unhelpful noise comes in these two forms. Explanations purport to be helpful and may be offered with positive intent but usually aren’t what is really needed. Excuses speak for themselves and that is exactly who they are trying to protect. Filter out both in search of clarity about what really matters and where we go next. Think about the most inspiring leaders you have experienced. Were they inspiring because they were adept at hearing explanations of what happened? Likely we are more inspired by those who are clear about where to go next to accomplish our purpose.

Another of aviation’s well-known sayings is that “A good pilot is always learning”. Likewise we can say that a good leader should do the same. The caveat is that gaining more information is not learning. Applying new information and learning from that experience is true learning and keeps information overload at bay. Clear awareness of what is important allows one to prioritize which information is critical. There is always more information available, but which is truly critical for your situation? Learning to discern that is a key to being a good, safe pilot and an effective leader.

Frank Burroughs is an experienced leader with a passion for helping others achieve more as leaders. He currently leads Clear on Purpose, LLC, a leadership and talent consulting company. Frank would love to hear from you at .


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