Piloting for Success

pilot-Dan-JonAlthough they have value, I’m not here to talk about quick hit or proof of concept projects. I’m talking about what leaders can learn from the disciplines of piloting aircraft. I earned my private pilot license in May of 2005. This post is a reflection on that experience and how it applies to business.


Know anyone that learned to fly without a flight instructor? Not likely. Even if it were not an FAA requirement, it’s unlikely that anyone since Orville and Wilbur would try it. A good part of the business the Wrights built after inventing flying was instructing pilots. An instructor offers a safeguard against crashing while a new pilot learns everything he needs to know and helps to speed acquiring those skills. I actually had three instructors at various times in my training. Each was able to give me insight and guidance on areas where I needed some extra help. To me, the analogy to business should be clear. Unless the cost of failure is very low and the time needed to gain skills can be long, get some good help.


Pilots go beyond only requiring coaching for initial training. To stay current, pilots are required to perform a minimal number of takeoffs and landings every few months. Checkrides are required to get endorsements for new aircraft and other skills. In addition the FAA mandates a Bi-Annual Flight Review that re-certifies licensing. This institutionalizes continuous learning and ensures skills do not deteriorate. These various checkrides tell pilots what they’re out of practice on and what they need to work on. Even in business, this is something all of us should seek out so we can retain the proficiencies we were proud of when we gained them and get new insights that can further our understanding.

Experiential Learning

From the first day you start learning to fly, it is likely your flight instructor will give you the controls. First in the air, then for takeoffs, advanced maneuvers, and finally landings. The concepts of flying an airplane are pretty simple. Take landings: power adjusts altitude, pitch adjusts speed, stay in the glide path. But, they take practice. And, experiencing how different conditions and subtle shifts impact the results is really the only way to become highly proficient. My instructor thought I was ready for my final examination with the FAA reviewer after about 40 hours of flight. I’d already passed the computer and oral knowledge tests, but I failed the flight test because I had little experience with the crosswind landings that became prevalent in the spring. Only after a lot more practice and help from another instructor did I gain proficiency in that skill.

The analogy for business, of course is that even apparently simple concepts need practice. Take Agile development or process improvement. The concepts are simple, yet few teams are able to implement them without a few cycles of learning. Only after experiencing how the concepts work, can they gain proficiency and generate benefits. People need room to make a few (safe) mistakes before they master new skills.


You’ve probably seen seasoned commercial pilots using checklists in the cockpit. From the time you start flying, these simple lists are prescribed to ensure that critical steps are not missed before, during and after flights. Why, because the one thing you skip this time may make the difference between success and failure (in pilot speak, that translates to preventing or at least surviving accidents). Now, I’m not suggesting that every business encounter should have a checklist. But, how many meetings would benefit from an agenda? When we skipped the last retrospective, did we lose valuable opportunities for incremental improvement? There are places in business where routine has a place and skipping even seemingly small steps can make a big difference over time or when really needed.

Risk Management

Flying is full of ‘old pilot sayings.’ Two I like are:

“Never let an airplane take you somewhere your brain didn’t get to five minutes earlier.” and “Speed is life, altitude is life insurance. No one has ever collided with the sky.”

Pilots are constantly ensuring they are prepared for what’s ahead and considering what they would do if things went wrong. Do I have the frequency and weather for the landing airport? Are there other aircraft in the area? If the engine stopped now, where’s the best landing spot or could I glide across that water body? There’s a contingency and planned response for a myriad of possible emergencies (engine failure, cockpit fire, stall, etc.) and they get practiced on a regular basis. I am always amazed at how calm pilots seem to be in emergency situations when they get replayed. I believe it comes from the what if scenarios and prescriptive responses that are instilled early in pilot training. Art Scholl, an air show pilot, had some advice that is invaluable for both emergency situations in the air and for business situations on the ground. Art advised:

“Stay Calm. Don’t just start doing things. Reason things through before you act.”

Indeed, reason things through even before they occur, then take the right action. The right action comes from ensuring risk management contingencies are in place, that practice happens before and purpose is exercised while corrective action is needed.

Bottom Line

In business, the results of failure can be far less than in flying, but many of the disciplines apply well to both for creating and maintaining high performance.

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