The world is learning a way of thinking that pilots have been familiar with for many decades.  The gap between our individual thinking, the thinking of business leaders, and the way we do things in aviation is narrowing.  The world over, individuals and business leaders are having to make decisions knowing full well that the consequences of those decisions could impact the immediate survival of their people and their businesses.  Lives are on the line.  Longevity depends on the outcomes of decisions made now.  The pressure is on.  The weight is evident.  The responsibility is real.

The gift of this weight and responsibility is its cleansing clarity.

Once you get your brain into the right gear to accept and deal with the responsibility and decisions at hand, you can develop agility and foresight on a whole new level.  Excuses fall away.  There are fewer grey areas.  Mediocre is not a possibility because it has the potential to kneecap your final outcomes.  The speed of those outcomes has increased, and the results of any decision made are imminent or immediate – not next year’s.

Thankfully, pilots have developed some “rules” and some ways of thinking that help achieve this clarity at the same time as protecting against unforeseen negative outcomes.  As we start to look forward into a world that will operate with new parameters for the foreseeable future, I’d like to share a few of these ways of thinking with you:

1. Never let an airplane take you somewhere your brain didn’t get to five minutes earlier

We call this “being ahead of the aircraft”, and what it means is that you’re always prepared for what comes next.  When your brain is 5 minutes ahead of the aircraft, you have whichever chart, checklist, radio frequency or approach plate you’re going to need next already accessible or programmed in.  You’ve radioed ahead to ask for clearance so that you’re not held up when you get to the next point and you know exactly what you need to do when you get there.  Even in “straight and level” flight, when everything is going smoothly, you consider where you’d go if an engine failed right now – what would your procedure be; which airports could you reach; where would you land?

The objective of this thinking is that you never find yourself in a situation where the pressure starts to build, things get on top of you and you lose the ability to make timely and considered choices because you’re overwhelmed by information and adrenaline.  When you get to every next step, you’ve already considered what you’d need and have it accessible.  You’ve run various possible scenarios in your head already, so are able to follow whichever one suits and make the associated decisions with relative calm and certainty.  You know exactly where you are and where you’re going at all times.  You plan ahead and know what you need to do before you do it.  You remain empowered, regardless of what comes and what adjustments you need to make.

2. Brief, discuss, communicate, debrief

In aviation, our flight “teams” are small.  They are precise.  Everyone has their allocated position and responsibilities, and we strive to maintain clarity by checking in with each other at multiple points along the way.  Before we embark on a flight, smaller parts of the larger team will brief on their specific responsibilities in line with the greater objective.  The captain will brief the larger team together and ensure everyone is on the same page and happy with what needs to be accomplished.  Queries are ironed out, differentials discussed.  Briefings are thorough, discussion is open and direct.  Language is clear and specific.  From there on out, the team will check in with each other every step of the way to confirm they have completed their duties to that point and confirm the outcome or any deviations if needed.  Everyone moves along the experience together, and no one is mentally left behind.  At the wrapping up of any given flight, a chance for debrief is given and any issues, snags, reports etc are raised, noted and acted on.  Shared thinking and communication allows everyone to stay focused, calm and responsible in their own right.  Accountability is key.  Openness is imperative.

There is no room for team members who don’t pull their weight.  Aviation has a funny way of weeding you out early if you don’t have the stamina, determination or strength of character to take responsibility for your part.  Our culture dictates that we maintain personal responsibility for our continued education and growth, and that we are always fit to fly, or speak up so that we can be helped if we need help.  Constant quality communication helps us identify where team members need bringing up to speed or need help synthesising new experiences.  We strive to ensure everyone in our team is always “on board”.

3. Know what your common value system is and don’t deviate from it

Every one of us has a value system that determines how we make our decisions.  In fact, it’s the root driver in our decision making, whether we acknowledge it or not.  If your family is your number one value, you will make all decisions based on how the outcome affects your family.  If coming out on top is a high value of yours, you will orient your decisions by whether you can ensure the win.  If long term growth of your business is your ultimate objective, you will make decisions that ensure that longevity and be more willing to take short term hits as they come with the long game in mind.

In aviation, we know that things can get hairy at any given moment, requiring you to make decisions that deviate from your initial plan.  That could be something as mundane as weather or traffic, or it could be something more “exciting” such as a technical problem, closure of your destination airport, or some kind of emergency.  Rather than our brains becoming scrambled when the pressure arrives, we remain clear about our guiding principles (our common value system), and we make all decisions in line with that.

In aviation, our agreed upon guiding principle is the safety of our airframe, and therefore everyone on board that airframe.  Ensuring we make decisions based on the security of the airframe allows us to do our jobs precisely and with clarity, without becoming overwhelmed by emotion.  In aviation today, our passengers are still referred to as “souls on board”.  Our responsibility for the souls on board, and the souls on the ground, should our aircraft threaten them, is primary for us.  Sticking to our guiding principles means we can make weighty decisions with clarity, even when the situation may seem dire.  Emergency landings are made to save lives, not airplanes.

THIS is why any team should understand and agree upon what their guiding principles are – their shared value system.  Clarity in moments of high pressure depends on knowing what is influencing your ability to make decisions.  What do you stand for?  What will you not bend for (and still be able to sleep at night)?  What drives your decision in a certain way?  What makes it a decision you can live with?

4. Nothing flies without fuel

Finally for today, let’s look at this seemingly obvious point.  Nothing flies without fuel.  Airplanes don’t fly without fuel.  People don’t “fly” without fuel.  Businesses don’t “fly” without “fuel”.  There’s a common expression that says, “The three most useless things in aviation are the runway behind you, altitude above you, and the fuel not in your tanks.” – meaning rather allow for more than you need than less.

It has been common knowledge in business that our teams can run dry when it comes to knowledge, growth and energy.  Burnout is a real thing, and yet it’s only starting to dawn on many businesses recently that in order to achieve their business goals, they must have a team who is strong and growing in the same direction as those goals.  It’s starting to dawn that mindset, health and wellness, personal growth and career advancement are necessary feeding factors if you want your greater plans achieved.

Many businesses and households worldwide have come slap bang up against the measurement of wealth that people like Robert Kiyosaki (of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” fame) have been using for years – right now, how many MONTHS can you afford to survive for?  Many households have enjoyed eating up any profit they may have made on a monthly basis, and many businesses pay out dividends as proof of their success without holding anything in escrow.  A new measure is now in place, only it’s not a “new” measure – it’s one that has been spoken about for decades – the idea of using any “fat” gained to beef up your “wealth” tank.  The tank that will fuel long term, sustained survival – the idea of keeping excess fuel in your tanks – allowing more fuel than you need for the flight so that you have fuel for alternative plans and contingencies if necessary. 

The idea that sustainability means we have a right to keep some of what we have earned and feed it back into the health of our system; to invest in the long-term growth of that system.  To buffer.  To protect.  And not to always run lean so that we can say we succeeded on the bare minimum.  It’s important to feed the system so that it keeps running.

I hope some of these ways of thinking that aviation uses to gain and maintain clarity will spark light with you today, either in your personal capacity, as a teammate and/or as a leader.  We have new ways of thinking available to us.  We have ways to achieve and maintain clarity.  We have ways to do things right, no matter the degree of responsibility that may require shouldering.  We have choices.

by Christen Killick

May 4th, 2020

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