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Leadership perspectives from a TOPGUN pilot

A few days ago, I attended a conference by an executive from Airbus recently founded subsidiary . The talk was on Leadership Perspectives, from his experience in government (as a White House military aide for two US presidents), as an aviator in the US Marines, within the aerospace industry, etc. The resume of David Kalinske is impressive, take a look at his profile here.

The conference in itself was rather classic and straightforward; going from a discussion on the definition of leadership to its main traits (no charisma, extrovert or outspoken type of person among them, by the way), principles of a good leader, a few key lessons learnt, some best experiences and recommendations, with a questions and answers session at the end of it. Plenty of common sense.

nfws_tgThere were, however, two sections from this speech that I found especially interesting and unique, which were the ones based on his takeaways from having served as a military tactical pilot (graduated in the TOPGUN school) and as an aide to presidents G. W. Bush and B. Obama. I will share below some of those takeaways with a few comments from my side.

Lessons learned from tactical aviation:

  • “You are only as good as your last flight”. Which in the business world may be translated as “as good as your last closed sale”, “your last analysis”, “test performed”, “meeting effectively managed”, etc. You need to be constantly aiming for the best performance.
  • “It takes a good wingman to be a good flight lead”. This one highlights the importance of team work, of developing the skills of the team members, empowering the team so they can take good decisions, delegate.
  • “Debrief, debrief, debrief” (1). Continuous effective communication and the importance of feedback loops cannot be overstated. Here I want to comment on the resource of the public speaking organization Toastmasters, which is heavily built around giving and receiving continuous feedback. It really helps oneself to get into that attitude.
  • “Be your own worst critic”. Don’t wait till someone has to point to you your own flaws and errors, be self-critical to improve yourself. In relation to this point, Chuck Yeager mentioned in his autobiography“Arrogance got more pilots in trouble than faulty equipment”. Moreover, Charles A. Lindbergh recalled in his autobiography the following piece of advice from his instructor in the Army (Master Sergeant Winston) “I just want you to remember this: in aviation, it may be all right to fool the other fellow about how good you are – if you can. But don’t try to fool yourself”.
  • “Plan from the target, outward”. Take this one as linked to setting smart objectives, realistic plans.
  • “Always be flexible. Your plan will never withstands first contact”. This relates to risk mitigation, the having a plan B, working on “what if” scenarios, etc. There is a similar line from former boxer Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth”.
  • “Make complicated missions understood by all”. The one person that has not understood the mission may become the weakest link on the chain. David mentioned that one striking difference between working in private companies or the military is the widespread knowledge of the organization’s mission, main objectives and how an individual may contribute to them in the latter.
  • “There are no points for 2nd place”. Sometimes there is no place for mistakes. The drive for excellence. Contracts are awarded only to the best offer.
  • “Bearing & discipline. Never appear rattled in the toughest circumstances”. Once there is a plan, the execution of that plan is key. The team, the leader cannot be constantly questioning the plan. My flight instructor used to say: “dans l’air, le cap c’est la vie”, once you have worked out your navigation plan, you need to rigorously stick to it. Charles A. Lindbergh described in his biography how the uncertainty of his flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 made him wonder that, depending on the prevailing winds combined with his precision while flying, the land he would spot first could range from Norway to the gulf of Biscay in Spain. He spotted the Irish coast, right on the middle of his intended track.
  • “Face your fears”. David gave as an example public speaking; for that one I would recommend again Toastmasters. In a  more general context he referred to acquiring new skills, being adaptive to change, to getting out of your comfort zone. Chuck Yeager said “I was always afraid of dying. Always. It was my fear that made me learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment”.
  • “Nothing is accomplished without a team effort”.

Lessons learned from the White House:

  • You cannot please everybody. In the case of the president, there will always be 150 million people loving you and 150 million people hating you. You cannot take decisions trying to please everybody.
  • Do what you think it’s right based on your principles.
  • Hire the best, learn from them. Surround yourself with the best. As a motivational speaker put it “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with”.
  • Be optimistic. 
  • Be an expert at dealing with bad news. And don’t let yourself be driven by them.

Conclusion.

The main takeaways, that I personally got from this conference, based on his general presentation and particularly on his experience as a pilot and in the White House, are: effective team work (including trust, empowerment, delegation), continuous candid and constructive feedback and keeping an optimistic attitude (including the reaching out of new experiences, getting yourself out of your comfort zone).

(1) David mentioned that even for dogfight flights that would not last more than 45 minutes they would have a post-flight debrief of up to 8 hours. This impressed me. I write myself a post flight report after every VFR flight, but my report may be about 1 DIN A4 length.

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