Flying Lessons

Mayvin Directors James Traeger and Martin Saville take a light-hearted look at leadership through the lens of flying

Flying Lessons


Chasing the dials

ʻOh for godʼs sake!ʼ My gliding instructor shouts. ʻStop it! Stop chasing your airspeed. Weʼre going up and down like a yoyo and Iʼm beginning to feel sick!ʼ

We landed and for the third time that day I sat there sweating, with the canopy open to cool my frustration. Why couldnʼt I keep my eye off that airspeed dial? The more I tried to focus on it, to keep it still, with the needle stuck on 55 knots as it should be, the more it wriggled about like a worm on a fishing hook.

ʻRight, thatʼs it!ʼ says my instructor, and he stomps off to the hangar, returning a minute later with a distinctly lo-tech piece of cardboard, which he tapes over the airspeed dial.

ʻThere!ʼ he exclaims triumphantly ʻWhat…?!ʼ I mumble. (ʻIs he mad?!ʼ, I think)
ʻWeʼre going up again!ʼ He says, swinging the canopy shut with one hand and signalling to the tow-plane with the other.

In the air he hands me control. ʻRight, I want you to fly the approach, and look out of the canopy and judge it for yourself. Remember: itʼs all about your attitude!ʼ

Now, by this he didnʼt mean for me to stop behaving like a sulky kid, even if I could have done with that. Attitude is pilot talk for the position of the nose to the horizon, which controls how fast you fly. Lower the nose and you fly faster, raise it and you slow down. Itʼs the same for all aircraft, from a glider to a jumbo jet.

I flew the approach, keeping my attention this time on the horizon and we land, not too roughly for a change. We undo our straps and get out of the glider in silence. Then he says the words I am dreading:

ʻSo, how fast do you think you flew that approach?ʼ

ʻI dunno, you tell me.ʼ I say, digging my toe into the grass like a petulant five year-old. I await his vitriol.

ʻWell, for a change, that was 55 knots, all the way down!ʼ he says

I am not a great pilot, but I love flying. Since I was a child it has been my ambition to fly. Although I feel like I donʼt have the temperament to become a professional pilot, and perhaps my antics above illustrate this well, since my mid-20s I have pursued my ambition of learning to fly, and have amassed over 100 glider flights over the last 20 years, perhaps the slowest take off in flight school history. But not put off by the pace, I have learnt loads, both about flight itself in something heavier than air, and also, inevitably, about myself. Learning to fly confronts you with the miraculous, the unpredictable and the downright tricky. It isnʼt the aircraft that makes it tricky though; they are usually solid and reliable things. It is the enormity of the sky, and the occasional stupidity of the pilot.

Learning about oneself through flying is learning about emotional intelligence, commitment, motivation, communication, decision-making and if you put all of this together, it as about leadership.

My business partner, Martin Saville, is also a keen private pilot, and we have often found ourselves exploring the great parallels between the issues we find our organisational clients facing on a daily basis and what aviation has taught us.

So what are those lessons from flying? Taking my story about ʻchasing the dialsʼ as an example:

“Itʼs about getting some of your attention out there, rather than just chasing endless measures of success, isnʼt it?” said Martin, “So many leaders think they can manage by numbers, and it doesnʼt work for them. Just like we canʼt fly by numbers only, it suggests leadership is more of a craft than a science.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “and for me the most important thing to learn was to settle down, to centre myself, to look outwards, to literally lift my eyes to view the world around me and fly in relation to that. What better way to learn to think and view the world more strategically?”

Martin has stories of his own to tell, like this one, which he called, ʻwhy didnʼt I insistʼ?

Why didnʼt I insist?

“Weʼre not going to make it!” I said to my friend, the pilot, sitting on my left. “Why not go around and have another go?”

We were on final approach in our four-seater plane, a Piper Warrior, and as the airfieldʼs boundary hedge disappeared below our wings, we were still a good 100 feet off the ground. Too high, given that this was a short field and we had to be able to land and then stop before we ran out of runway.

“No mate, weʼll be fine” came the reply.

I wasnʼt happy. I could see pretty clearly that we were pushing our luck, but then who was I to argue? My friend seemed confident enough, and Iʼd said my piece. Now shut up, and let him get on with landing the plane – nobody likes a backseat driver.

We glided down towards the runway, nose pointing into a cross-wind that was determined to push us off the runway centre line. Close the throttle, raise the nose, straighten up with the rudder and bank into wind. A nice touch down. The tyres squealed as they went from nought to 70 miles an hour in a nano-second and then the boundary fence was rushing towards us. Full brakes … more squealing of tyres … the fence looms larger and larger in the Warriorʼs windscreen with every passing moment… and then, after some eternal seconds, we stop, just a few feet away from the end of the runway.
“Blimey, that was close”, breathed my friend.

“Why didnʼt you go around?!” I hissed, incredulous with righteous anger. “I told you we were too high.” We were in the clubhouse, having just endured a humiliating ʻdebriefʼ with the Chief Flying Officer of the club whose airfield we had nearly ruined.

“Well if you were so sure we were going to get into trouble, why didnʼt you say something? Youʼve got a mouth,” retorted my friend.

“I did, but you didnʼt listen.”

“Well if youʼd insisted, of course I would have gone around. I thought weʼd be okay, and because you didnʼt say anything more I assumed you agreed.”

That burst my balloon. Righteous anger melts into embarrassment. Why didnʼt I insist?

“Okay, fair point” I mumbled. “Letʼs agree some different protocols for when we fly together next time, shall we?”

This situation is less uncommon than you might think, both in aviation and in other areas of life. What can we learn from it about leadership? I see several lessons.

  1. Insisting is hard
  2. Relationships matter
  3. Human beings donʼt behave rationally

1. Insisting is hard
In the incident above, I could see that we were too high and as a pilot, I knew my perception of the situation was probably accurate. (Indeed as I was not preoccupied with landing an aeroplane in challenging conditions, I was probably better placed to make the judgement than the pilot in command.) I suggested to the pilot that we go around, but when he declined, I let him get on with it. With hindsight, I see I should have followed up by insisting that he go around.

Insisting is a very different act from requesting or suggesting. Insisting means taking a stand, it means taking responsibility, it means being prepared to get it wrong or to look foolish. It also means being willing to cause upset or offence. Insisting is risky, and we tend to shy away from it, even in grave situations.
As leaders, how often do we take the easy way out by requesting or suggesting something that we really need to insist on, especially with people who have more power than us?

2. Power and dignity matter
Implicit in the story I told is a theme about power and dignity in a relationship between two people. “Who am I to argue?” I asked myself. “Who are you not to argue?” you might reply. But arguing requires me to step into my power. I wasnʼt prepared to do that: my friend was the pilot in command, a role which conferred on him some ʻlegitimateʼ power, and I was not prepared to challenge that.

Furthermore, I didnʼt want to offend my friend by challenging his piloting prowess. But in my attempt to honour my friendʼs dignity, I risked a nasty accident, and his dignity came off far worse than if Iʼd insisted he go around.

So part of my reluctance to insist was created by a desire not to risk the relationship with my friend. In a relationship, peopleʼs power and dignity matter; unless they are talked about explicitly, they work on us unconsciously and bite us on the behind.

How often have we stepped back from telling the truth to someone who needs to hear it, only to have them say they wished weʼd told them?

3. Human beings donʼt behave rationally
I have told this story to many people since it happened, and often the response is of disbelief, especially from non-pilots. How, they ask themselves, can someone behave so irrationally in a matter of life and death? The fact is, however, that we humans donʼt always behave rationally. Under stress, we revert to more primitive brain functions, and these are governed far more by emotion than by rational thought. Human beings are fundamentally emotional creatures – letʼs own up to that.

As leaders, do we sometimes have unrealistic expectations of how rationally we or others will behave?

Identify and Operate

I wholeheartedly agree with Martin about human beings being irrational. I have an example of my own, again drawing relevant parallels between leadership and flying.

When you are learning to fly a glider, one of the early lessons is ʻidentify and operateʼ. This is about is the deliberate, conscious naming of various controls before you use them. Itʼs as if you were being to taught to eat a meal by making sure you say to yourself ʻthereʼs the forkʼ before you prong your chip, or ʻthis is a knifeʼ, before slicing your steak. To the novice it can feel a little over deliberate; a military-style anachronism. So in the early days of learning to fly, I didnʼt really bother with it. That is, until one day when I learnt the real reason for doing so.

We were flying on the air-tow, which is when the glider is being tugged up into the air by another aircraft, usually a small propeller plane. It is like flying in formation, except you are attached to each other by a 100 foot-long rope and therefore something that demands considerable concentration. I was flying the glider and when we got to the appropriate height, about 4000ft, I duly pulled the release knob, which should be followed with the tug peeling off away down to one side, as we execute a smooth and quiet climbing turn away in the other direction. As the glider is now free, the world should become a quiet, peacefully smooth place. Except that what happened at that moment was precisely the opposite; all hell broke loose, the tug plane seemed to be dragged closer into view. Alarmingly huge, it filled the canopy in front of me. A great big whipping bow formed in the rope, and a rather unpleasant sinking feeling in the seat of my pants accompanied by lots of noises, vibrations and thumps, not to mention the shouts of my instructor.

ʻI have controlʼ, he yells, and almost instantly all settles down. What on earth was that all about? And the post mortem begins.

It seems that in my intense concentration on keeping in station with the tug I (like many) did not distinguish between the tug release knob and the air brake handle. A big mistake. If you look at these two controls, it is very easy ʻon the groundʼ to distinguish between the two. They are situated about six inches away from each other. One is a round bright yellow knob, the other a bright blue rectangular handle. It seems ridiculous on the ground to imagine one might confuse the two. It was gobsmacking to me that in the air I actually did.

Once again, aviation common-sense like ʻaviation and operateʼ, offers a big lesson in life and leadership. I have used it as an example on development programmes, especially in relation to the emotional literacy leaders have to exhibit in order to have the important, difficult conversations with colleagues and clients that are often avoided yet vital in business. It seems to present a prefect parallel. In order to deal effectively with someone, especially when tempers are frayed, it is worthwhile pausing, taking some time to reflect and ʻidentifyʼ exactly what emotional dynamic we need to ʻoperateʼ. This gives you a bit of time to decide in what way to respond, what words to use, how to manage your tone of voice, your presence in order to hit the right register and avoid inadvertently opening up issues that may be inflammatory, whilst making sure that what needs to be said is indeed said. It requires a particular, precise emotional skill. For example, in negotiation, when the expression of strong emotions can be used as a ploy to out people off their stride, ʻidentify and operateʼ suggests we carefully pick our way through our own emotional landscape first, so we donʼt get ʻhookedʼ by the game-playing. This is what Roger Fisher and William Ury call ʻseparating the people from the problemʼ in their negotiation bestseller, Getting to Yes.

Conclusion: “I have control”

Martin takes up our story to conclude

The world of aviation is governed by strict protocols. The first thing a student pilot is taught is that when his instructor says, “I have control” (as in Jamesʼ example above), he lets the instructor take over! Such protocols enable complex tasks to be shared with clarity and simplicity, and paradoxically it is through adherence to these protocols that we recreational pilots are able to enjoy the ultimate freedom of soaring through the air.

In an airliner cockpit there are protocols that facilitate ʻdifficultʼ conversations between the two pilots, where, for example, a more junior pilot wishes to challenge a decision made by the senior pilot or give him feedback. Such protocols formalise these conversations into a set of processes and in so doing, take the heat out. At their best, they lead to a culture in which someone who does not speak up on matters of pilot competence and safety loses the respect of his peers.

Of course, these kinds of protocol exist outside the world of aviation too. Facilitators call the process of developing such protocols ʻcontractingʼ. Contracting in a work context can cover such issues as what people expect and need to satisfy each otherʼs expectations, what does ʻgoodʼ look like, what happens when things go wrong, etc. The contracting process can range from the high level to the detailed. We believe that in most relationships, be they work or personal, not enough effort is put into the contracting process and that as a result these relationships suffer.

Aviation is a private passion that James and I share. But it contains lessons for an area which all of us at Mayvin are passionate about, namely helping people to get clearer about their relationships with others and with themselves. With this clarity we have the capacity to take responsibility for how we go through the world, and how we impact others.