Monday, January 4, 2016

3 Vital Leadership Lessons I Learned Flying a Fighter Jet


I could feel the nerves rushing through my entire body when I woke up that morning. It was a mix of pure excitement and apprehension. What made me nervous was that I remembered the medical examination the day before when the doctor checked I was fit enough to fly and explained to me the G-forces I will be experiencing in a Fighter Jet. She let me know that when the plane changes direction there will be an intense pressure on my body. The main side effect of this pressure is that it pushes your blood into your lower body. This in turn creates a lack of blood in your upper body and your brain, which can lead you to pass out.
But she told me that before this would happen I would experience ‘tunnel vision’ since the nerves in your eyes get affected first from a lack of blood supply. She went on to say how I should then compress my abs because it makes it harder for the blood to pass through the muscles into my legs. Reassuringly, she also told me that I (like all other fighter pilots) would be wearing G-trousers, which will inflate during high G-forces and squeeze your legs and lower belly to stop the blood entering that part of my body. So you can imagine that I was feeling a little nervous.
For me it was the fulfillment of a teenage dream (that started after watching Top Gun far too many times). My work with the Air Force (helping them develop a strategic performance management framework) had let to the ultimate treat: A flight in a fighter jet! The reason I am sharing this experience here is that I learnt a lot during that day. First and foremost I learnt that I was very na├»ve to believe that the flight would be a little bit like the commercial airline flights I take most weeks of the year – I thought it would just be a little bit faster. Boy was I wrong! Anyway, I don’t want to share all the ins and outs of my experience and instead focus on three important leadership lessons I picked up before, during and after my flight. I believe these three are vital lessons that should be applicable to all leaders and managers across all industries. In fact, I believe that they are the three corner stones of excellent performance, be it in a life and death air battle or in any business context. So here are my three:
1. Visualize Success
After I got kitted out with flight overall, parachute, helmet and oxygen mask and had my safety briefing I was more than ready to go. I was buzzing when I met the pilot who would take me up and couldn’t wait to jump into the jet. However, he calmed my excitement and told me that we first had to plan our mission. The purpose for our flight was to fly up into the mountains and pretend to drop a bomb on a bridge. We then mapped out our flight path, printed it off and put it visibly into a clear plastic pocked on the upper leg of the flight overall - so you always have the objective and flight path right in front of you when you sit in the jet. 
In business we often jump straight to the action because we are excited and want to get on with things. Many companies fail to plan and communicate their mission and objectives well and then wonder why they are failing to deliver. I believe companies need a one-page mission plan that sits in front of everyone outlining the overall goal as well as the 'flight-path' with the key milestones that need to be delivered along the way.
2. Monitor Progress
After some crazy manoeuvres in the air and after pretending to drop our bomb on the bridge the pilot showed me what else the plane could do, at which point I was starting to not feel too well. I upped the level of oxygen and told the pilot that I wouldn't mind if we returned back to base. He then took the plane above the clouds and 'gave me control', which was a great experience and I quickly felt better. When I say he 'gave me control' I mean the plane was flying into the direction I was pushing the stick in my hand but I am also sure there were lots of other things the pilot did that I was completely unaware off. Anyway, while I was now steering the plane the pilot explained to me how they use the dials on the dashboard. Apparently there are 6 vital instruments (airspeed indicator, attitude indicator, altimeter, turn coordinator, heading indicator and vertical speed indicator) and together they allow the pilot to fly the plane safely even when there is zero visibility. Pilots trust their instruments to give them the vital information they need to complete their mission. Without navigation tools pilots would be lost.
The same is true for companies. In order to succeed on their mission they have to develop the right indicators to monitor progress. I help companies design KPIs and management dashboards and I find it shocking how much unnecessary information is reported – often drowning out any important insights with useless and meaningful data. What's more, the information is often presented in ways that makes it difficult or impossible to read and understand. If we did the same in planes they would crash all the time!
3. Improve the future
When we finally landed back at the base I was physically completely exhausted, climbed out of the plane with wobbly knees and said to the pilot "Thank you so much, I am now off to bed!" To which the pilot replied: "You can't go yet, we have to complete the mandatory after action review". The after action review is a meeting in which you discuss what went well and not so well during the flight. My meeting was obviously not very constructive but watching some of the top squadrons doing their after action reviews was amazing. Usually the leader stands up first and openly shares what was good and not so good - admitting their own mistakes. They then spend some time agreeing how they could learn from the good and improve things next time to avoid the bad.
What I experienced in the Air Force was a ‘Performance Preview’ rather than a ‘Performance Review’. The main focus was to learn from the past (good and bad) and then make decisions about the future (the next mission).The culture I see in many companies is one where people only focus on the past with little discussion of the future. Or where people only focus on the good and brush the bad under the carpet. In companies we need to create a more open and honest culture that focuses on learning and improving the future. 
Summary
I strongly believe that three vital corner stones of good leadership and performance are:
  1. Creating a visible, clear and simple strategic plan that everyone understands
  2. Measuring and reporting progress towards the strategic goals with a small number of relevant and insightful indicators
  3. Establishing a culture where performance is discussed openly and honestly and where the focus is in on future improvements rather than looking into the past.
Let me know what you think. Do you agree with me that these three are vital leadership ingredients? Would you add any to this list? Would you take any off? Please share your views...

Source: Bernard Marr


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