Charting a Course For Change: What Pilots Can Teach Other Leaders About Change

Change is an inherent part of life. It presents itself in various forms and contexts, from organizational transformations to personal growth journeys. Change is the nature of life, no matter how much we may wish for constants, change comes with or without our will. It’s therefore worth acknowledging that navigating change can be a complex and daunting task, requiring careful planning, adaptability, and effective leadership. Navigating change is something that pilots do each time they plan and execute a flight, and the tools and methods they use can serve as valuable guides for leading change in any arena. By examining the considerations, psychology of change, preparation strategies, and key factors that keep us on track, we can develop a comprehensive understanding of change leadership.

Leadership is a choice, not a title. Any of us can lead from any position and are called on to do so in our personal lives, in our communities and in our professional lives. Leadership is service to others, and it starts with leading ourselves. Choosing to handle change with understanding and preparation ensures we can maintain stability whilst we do so, and these considerations can be applied to any change we go through – chosen or otherwise.

Considerations for Leading Change

Just as pilots meticulously plan their flights, considering factors such as weather conditions, fuel requirements, and airspace restrictions, change leaders must also engage in a thoughtful evaluation process. Before embarking on a change initiative, it is crucial to assess the scope and impact of the change. This entails identifying the stakeholders involved, understanding their needs and concerns, and gauging the potential obstacles and risks. By conducting a thorough analysis, we can develop a clear vision and a comprehensive plan that addresses potential challenges and maximizes the chances of success.

This is as true in our personal lives as it is in our professional lives. We can structure our thinking regardless of whether the change tugs at our emotions, or merely requires that we change a fundamental system we’re used to working with.

The Psychology of Change

Change often triggers resistance and uncertainty in us. We naturally tend to cling to the familiar and fear the unknown because dealing with the unknown, by definition, makes us feel we’re at a deficit. In the cockpit, we plan for what we know and allow contingency for what we can’t foresee, preparing broadly for all eventualities. Pilots exemplify the importance of maintaining a calm and confident demeanour, which can be emulated in the context of leading change.

By cultivating empathy, practicing active listening, and fostering open communication, change leaders can alleviate fears and encourage a sense of trust and collaboration among stakeholders. Involving others in the change process and providing opportunities for their input and involvement can enhance their ownership and commitment to the change. Recognizing and understanding the psychology of change is paramount for effective change leadership.

Preparation for Change

There is little more important than the thought and prior planning that lays the foundation from which you will get “airborne”. Pilots invest considerable time and effort in preparing for each flight. They meticulously go through pre-flight checklists, study flight plans, and familiarize themselves with the capabilities of their aircraft. Similarly, effective change leaders must engage in thorough preparation before initiating any change effort. This preparation includes conducting extensive research, gathering relevant data, seeking diverse perspectives, and developing a well-defined strategy. Equipping ourselves with knowledge and a solid plan means we can navigate unexpected detours and challenges with greater resilience and agility.

Whereas a pilot wouldn’t consider getting airborne without having considered how much fuel is required, for example, we often don’t allocate enough time and resources to our planning in other areas of our lives. How often do we take on great personal change without having done the mental work of considering various scenarios and whether we’re prepared for them?

How often do organisations make major changes to their systems without having fully investigated what those changes may affect and whether the people who must implement them are fully prepared mentally? Mental preparation, as well as consideration of resources, time and contingencies, provides the groundwork that will support your change.

Tools for Leading Change

Just as pilots rely on various tools and methodologies to guide them through their journeys, we can leverage specific frameworks and techniques to facilitate and track progress. One such tool is the “change management roadmap.”
This framework outlines the stages of change, from initiation to implementation and evaluation, providing a structured approach to effectively lead change. By breaking down the change process into manageable steps, we can establish clear goals, allocate resources, and monitor progress.

When we map out our routing and the various steps we must take, we solidify our destination and how we plan on getting there in our minds. No track is ever travelled as directly as it was planned, and knowing where you’re headed and why is imperative to being able to reorient yourself when you’re knocked off course. This is as true in our personal lives as it is in any other arena. Change requires great energy from us, and having a “map” to follow means we can recover ourselves faster without expending excess energy.

Navigating Diversions and Unexpected Events

No flight is entirely without surprises. In the cockpit, we’re trained to handle diversions and unexpected events using a method known as “aviate, navigate, communicate.” In the face of change, we can adopt a similar approach to maintain our course. Aviate: Stay focused on the core purpose and objectives of the change, adapting to new circumstances and challenges as they arise. Navigate: Continually reassess the situation, adjust plans if necessary, and remain agile in response to evolving conditions. Communicate: Keep stakeholders informed, providing regular updates, addressing concerns promptly, and fostering a transparent and inclusive environment. Effective communication plays a crucial role in building trust and managing expectations during times of change.

Staying on Track

Just as pilots rely on a combination of instruments and their senses to stay on track, change leaders must establish mechanisms to monitor progress and ensure alignment with the desired outcomes. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) play a vital role in this process. By defining measurable goals and milestones, we can track and evaluate the success of our initiatives. These KPIs can be both quantitative, such as financial metrics or customer satisfaction ratings, and qualitative, such as employee engagement or cultural transformation indicators. Again, KPIs are as easily applied to our personal journeys as to our professional ones. Regularly reassessing and monitoring these indicators allows us to identify areas of improvement, make necessary adjustments, and celebrate milestones, keeping our spirits up and helping us to sustain momentum throughout the change journey.

In addition to tracking progress through KPIs, we can also benefit from establishing feedback loops and mechanisms for gathering input from those around us. Pilots rely on air traffic control, instruments, and communication with their crew to maintain situational awareness. Similarly, when we create channels for ongoing dialogue, solicit feedback, and actively listen to the perspectives of those affected by the change, we’re able to understand any emerging challenges or concerns and make timely adjustments to our strategies. By involving others affected by the change in the process and valuing their input, we can build a sense of ownership and shared responsibility, increasing the likelihood of successful change implementation.

Furthermore, leading change can be an arduous journey, and it is crucial for us to take personal responsibility for our well-being and maintain resilience. Pilots undergo rigorous training and adhere to strict self-care practices to ensure they are fit to fly. Likewise, when we lead change in any arena, prioritising our mental and physical health includes setting realistic expectations, managing stress, seeking support from mentors or peers, and engaging in activities that promote well-being and rejuvenation. Nurturing one’s own resilience and well-being allows us to maintain our focus and effectiveness throughout the change process.

Leading Change in Any Arena

The tools and methods pilots employ to navigate the skies serve as powerful metaphors for leading change in any arena, be it business, civic engagement, or personal growth. By considering the scope, understanding the psychology of change, preparing diligently, leveraging specific tools and methodologies, navigating diversions, and staying on track, we can confidently chart a course for successful change on any level.

In the realm of business, effective change leadership can drive organizational transformation, foster innovation, and adapt to evolving market dynamics. By applying the principles of thorough preparation, effective communication, and engaging stakeholders, we can guide our organizations through change initiatives with agility and resilience.
In the context of civic engagement, we can mobilize communities, advocate for social justice, and drive positive change at a societal level. By understanding the psychology of change and leveraging tools such as grassroots organizing, strategic communication, and coalition building, we can inspire collective action and make a meaningful impact.

On a personal level, change leadership is essential for personal growth and self-improvement. By adopting the mindset of a change leader and utilizing tools such as goal setting, self-reflection, and continuous learning, we can navigate personal transformations, overcome challenges, and achieve our full potential.

Change is a constant in our lives, and leading change requires a deliberate and strategic approach. By drawing inspiration from the tools and methods employed by pilots to chart a course and handle unexpected events, we can navigate the complexities of change with confidence and success. Remember, change is inevitable, but with the right mindset, preparation, and leadership, we can achieve most things!

by Christen Killick

May 29th, 2023

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