This Is Your Captain Speaking

As a small child, I remember looking up to my Father as he donned his uniform to go and fly.  He took immense pride in the uniform he wore – there was only one way to tie a tie, and his routine was capped off by lifting each already-shiny shoe onto the side of the bath to re-buff its finish.  There was pride in his demeanour, and a quiet authority that invited calm.  With or without his jacket and cap, he inspired confidence and communicated a dedication to precision.  His cap still sits on the top of my cupboard today – a reminder of that quiet pride and precision.

As the Captain of an aircraft, the responsibility for that flight lies squarely on your shoulders.  Not on the rest of your crew.  Not on the myriad of people who will come together today to make your flight happen.  Not on the decision makers in Ops who push and pull at your schedule and designated craft.  Not even on the representatives of the company for whom you fly.  As the Captain of an aircraft, the decisions that ultimately determine the outcome of your flight are yours to make, and that is no small consideration.

It is the Captain’s job to take in all the external information, consider the input from all other parties, and maintain the big picture of what’s needed in any given moment.  I have no doubt, in retrospect, that my Father prepared his thinking as he buttoned each button of his shirt, tied and adjusted his tie, and re-shone his shoes.  Many years later, I would take the same pride and preparation in putting on my own uniform and mentally preparing myself for what was required, and what I dearly loved to do.

Decades further, when I left aviation, a friend and fellow pilot took me aside before my first speaking engagement and helped me “anchor” that feeling.  The feeling of standing on the tarmac before a flight, uniformed and mentally prepared.  Welcoming and deeply committed to taking on whatever may present itself.  Whenever I place myself there in my head, I grow two inches, my shoulders pull back, and an inner calm comes over me.  I am ready.

As we start a new year, this is ideally the stance we’d like to take.  One of calm, of confidence; of reassurance that whatever comes, we have the skills and mental presence to handle it.

As we stand here with 2021 stretching out ahead of us, for many it’s incredibly difficult to feel that way.  2020 was exhausting with the speed of change and level of uncertainty taking a heavy toll.  As amped up as we may have been to start a clean year, having January cancelled in many parts of the world and watching some of the goings-on around the globe is enough to dull the mood.  If we’re to make something of this year, apathy or false confidence aren’t going to get us there.

The communication within a cockpit is what could be referred to as high-stakes communication.  It matters what tone you strike, what words you use.  It matters how thorough it is and how precisely it’s nailed down.  It matters how it’s addressed and that all the parties are fully switched on and engaged.  There is no room for exhaustion.  For apathy.

This is the time of year where we set our course.  Whether that’s you as an individual, or as a team leader or team member – now is when we look up to see where it is we’d like to arrive at, and then put our heads down to do the planning to secure that destination.  Now is the time we pull apart what’s needed and put a plan on paper for how we think things are going to go.  Now is when we discuss what deviations and alternates might look like if the original plan doesn’t pan out for some reason, and what we may need in terms of resources to cater for those deviations and alternates.

Now is the time to anchor yourself in whatever does it for you – whatever makes you grow two inches and pull your shoulders back to address the world.  Now is the time to address your own high-stakes communication within yourself and with your team – be they at home or at work – and decide what you’d like for this year, before this year decides for you.

Yes, there may be deviations.  You may even find yourself arriving at an alternate destination by year-end.  But without planning, and the right energy and allocation of resources at the onset, you’ll be at the mercy of the changing wind rather than your own determination.

The last lines of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus read,

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”

We solely have control over determining our feelings and our destiny, despite the circumstances.

Define yourself first, and anchor yourself in that feeling.  Decide where you’d like to go this year and discuss the plan with your crew to get their buy in.  Remember that the point of having a crew is that each has value and perspective to bring – make use of their strengths and contribution.  No Captain can accomplish a flight alone.  Remember that your communication is high-stakes.

Communicate like it matters.  Communicate like you have somewhere to go.  Communicate like it matters who you go with, and where you end up.  Let’s take ownership of this year as if the responsibility for where we personally end up is something that rests fully with us.  Because it does.

by Christen Killick

January 11th, 2021

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