Blog: Of Pilots and Leaders


Of Pilots and Leaders

The leader of a business is much like a pilot. Keeping the business running using positive forces of management to combat negative forces of the environment.
Of Pilots and Leaders

Airline pilots. Those smartly dressed professionals striding confidently across airports at all hours of the day and night. A vision that sets many hearts a-flutter. Many childhood decisions were made then and there: When I grow up I will be a pilot!

Interestingly, despite all the progress, the fundamentals of flying are all about balancing four forces that act on the aeroplane:

- Thrust: From the engines

- Drag: When the air resists the intrusion of the airframe

- Lift: From the aerodynamics of the wings

- Weight: We (and our overweight co-passengers), our luggage and the plane itself, answering the pull of gravity

The three axis of control, that meet at the center of gravity of the aircraft, also remain unchanged. These axis come into play when maneuvering the in the right direction.

However, despite the basics remaining the same, modern aircraft are nowhere like their ancestor that William and Orville put together 110 years ago! Today’s flying machines are hugely complex. Managed by powerful computers that operate most of the flight processes – with precision and perfection beyond human capability. Under the control of a crew that needs rigourous, and ongoing, training, not only to keep their bird in the sky, but also to give passengers a smooth, comfortable journey. (Let’s never forget the customer please!)

A pilot’s agenda begins well before take-off, continues through the flight, to well after the plane has landed. Meticulously reviewing dashboards that constantly monitor all the onboard systems. Making adjustments to compensate for environmental conditions and course corrections. And this is on a good, normal fair-weather day!

But this piece is not about flying! This is about how managing a business is like flying a modern airliner!

Similar to the cockpit, in the boardroom, the CEO and leadership team also balance the same four forces that keep the business flying:

- Thrust: Fueled and fired by the impetus of investments, the engines of business success are an engaged team, an agile organization, a solid product and clear directions from the leaders. These provide the thrust organizations need to surge forward and claim the market opportunity.

- Drag: Product challenges, competitive activity, customer resistance, inefficient processes and people issues (eg. attrition) that prevent a business from going as fast as it would like to.    

- Lift: The business strategy, emerging from the Vision, Mission and goals of the organization and the management skills of the CEO, and her leadership team, account for the aerodynamics of the organization. These create the culture that lifts the organization out of the red and keeps it performing in an efficient, profitable and legally compliant manner.  

- Weight: Costs of running the business, penalties, mistakes, lack of agility, ability, training and engagement, all weight down on a business. Gravity is, after all, a strong force – for a plane as well as a business!

Within the ambit of this Yin-Yang of forces, the CEO pilots her organization in the crowded airspace of the market – whether domestic or global!

In the cockpit, the brainwork never stops even for a moment! It rarely occurs to us that when the Captain turns on the ‘Fasten-Seatbelt’ sign, she could be dealing with anything from crosswinds to an engine failure!

It’s the same in the boardroom! The CEO is supported by a leadership team responsible for Operations, Engineering, Customers, People…! Technology is a solid friend too. Very few people in the workforce appreciate the intensity of thought, debate and discussion that precedes every decision and every communication. Just because they are delivered in a calm tone and manner, they’re often considered too cold, arbitrary and, sometimes, even insensitive.

CEO’s have to decode the dashboard that flashes data about the health of the business. Are we getting adequate investments? Are we profitable? Where can we reduce costs? Which processes can be improved? Are our plants running optimally? Is our product portfolio successful? Are our people trained and engaged? Are our customers happy?

The CEO needs to consolidate varied streams of data supplied by various members of the leadership team to make appropriate and timely business decisions. Just like the cockpit and cabin crew on the plane, and the support staff on the ground. Only then can the business run smoothly and in the direction determined by the strategic plan. The CEO in the boardroom and the pilot in the cockpit are saddled with a titanic responsibility! Of lives, of assets, reputations… Imagine the pressure! Yet, as we push back our seats and settle in for the journey, the Captain’s voice is always calm and reassuring. For customers – and aerophobes, like yours truly – that comfort is mandatory! 

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Topics: Leadership, Culture

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