Flying Through Turbulence

May 7, 2021

By Dave Bushy / Boston Executive Coaches

“This is your captain speaking.  We’re experiencing some turbulence right now.  My first officer and I are working with air traffic control to find a smoother altitude for you.  In the meantime, please keep your seat belts securely fastened.”

How many times have you heard language like this?  And have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes on the flight deck and contemplated using that as an example of how we all can lead our organizations in times of turbulence?

As a coach I often use metaphors to help clients build their awareness.  And as a former professional pilot, I have to admit that I very often use metaphors that are aviation related.

Turbulence.  We’ve all experienced it in flight and no doubt we’ve also felt metaphorical turbulence in our personal and professional lives.  And we have each reacted to it in a multitude of ways.

A captain of an airliner has a role not unlike a corporate leader.  Even more than in a company, though, the captain is literally strapped to the airplane and controlling its every movement.  What does a captain do that a corporate leader can emulate? 

  1. Understand that your company, like an airliner, is constructed to withstand the rigors of turbulence.  As you built your company, you used many of the same ideas an aeronautical engineer utilizes, including strength, flexibility, ability to handle the stress of turbulence, and strong materials to build the structure.  An able leader in a company builds a balance sheet and internal processes that can cope with the ups and downs of the marketplace and the worldwide economy.  An able leader also build a team that is resilient, “anti-fragile” and capable of adapting to any situation.
  • When the going gets rough in a company, a corporate leader, like a pilot, needs even more focus than normal.  When you encounter rough air, you can’t worry about the small stuff – you have to deal with the situation at hand.  My twin brother was a ship’s captain.  He echoed my thoughts about this article – when you’re on the bridge of a ship or the flight deck of an airliner, you deal with the current situation, not yesterday or tomorrow.
  • You need to develop options.  A captain and first officer are constantly checking with the dispatchers about turbulence reports, asking air traffic control about ride reports above and below them, and then carefully, but deliberately (in real time) considering their decisions. This is no different than working with Executive VP’s and Direct Reports to understand issues inside the company and making collaborative, real-time decisions.
  • A leader has to emulate the captain in  communication skill.  That includes working with your subordinate leaders in developing a plan.  A captain does that with the first officer, dispatchers, air traffic controls, and the flight attendants who are the direct interface with the customers.  A corporate leader does that by leaning on the strengths of team members, drawing on their capabilities and ideas.  Times of crisis demand even more communication and collaboration than usual.  But it must be focused and decisive.  There are not times for committees on a flight deck, or, during times of crisis, a corporate boardroom.
  • A leader needs to remain calm and exude a quiet confidence.  It takes some practice and a very real need for compartmentalization.  Captains stay cool and keep the others around them calm as a result.  So can a corporate leader.  Be the calm in the center of the storm.

When a business runs into bad weather and turbulence, it can shake everyone.  Like our metaphorical passengers, that voice of calm from the “captain” of the business is so very important to reassure everyone on the team that the “aircraft” is built to weather the storm and get us safely to our destination. 

It always will.

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