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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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Stage time, stage time, stage time

Darren LaCroix is a Toastmasters member who won the World championship of public speaking in 2001. Last Friday, I attended a workshop on public speaking that he gave in Lisbon, just before our District 59 Spring conference.

The guy is impressive. The 3-hour workshop was fantastic. The deal was truly value for money.

He explained his story more or less in his winning speech from 2001, repeated at an event of the NSA in the following video:

10 years later, he is even better… but he wasn’t always like that. During the weekend he played another video of himself in the late 80´s. He was then a disaster of a public speaker. He then went on a journey of studying the best speakers and working hard to improve until being what he is today. This sounds very much as the American dream story… but having seen the video back then and seeing the dozens of shelves filled of videos and cassettes of speeches that he went through in those 10 years, there is little doubt of the truthfulness of that story. As he said “I use the tool of Toastmasters better than most”.

Some takeaways of the workshop

I will leave below some of the notes I took during the workshop, to share them with you and to have them properly stored for myself (still, if you get the chance of attending one of his workshops, do yourself the favour and book a place in it). Many of them are quotes either from him or from his coaches, sometimes I didn’t get right the source.

The most important part of a presentation: “The thought process in the audience’s mind”.

He introduced the concept of “salting” a presentation: getting your audience to want to hear your message before you deliver it (building up curiosity, tension).

The 4 most important habits to create:

  1. Never turn down stage time (he even subscribed to 4 different club to “quadruple his failure rate”).
  2. Record yourself every time (“yeah, it’s hard to listen to yourself… but guess who we have to listen to!”).
  3. Be confident enough to be humble.
  4. You must crave feedback.

“Habits are like train tracks: take a long time to put in place but once there they’ll take you anywhere”, Patricia Fripp.

On nervousness before an audience: “Did anyone come here to watch me fail?”

“Skill set without mindset will get your audience upset”.

Sometimes emphasizing is de-emphasizing (from the lyrics of some U2 song).

Clarity and simplicity”, for the audience. Use the stage with a purpose.

“Don’t add humour, uncover humour”. Not especially in favour of adding others’ jokes, if you do that you have to say so.

If you are inauthentic and the audience senses that, they won’t follow you.

Connect before you can educate, entertain and persuade” (he had greeted 90% of the audience individually before starting the workshop). As a curiosity he mentioned the movie “Avatar”, in which the creatures are connected through hair and ponytails, e.g. “the horse chooses the rider”, in the same way the goal of the speaker is to get the audience to like him.

For professional speakers the pay has to be a side effect.

We are not taught how to incorporate feedback.

“Toastmasters slogan should be: `The best place to make mistakes´”.

“The difference between good and great speakers is 100 speeches”, Dale Carnegie. An average Toastmaster member gives 3-4 speeches per year (it’d take 25 years to give 100). Take every opportunity you have to give speeches. He delivered his winning speech 22 times in the 3.5 months previous to the competition. “What is your stage time rate?”; join more clubs.

“Speaking as a dialogue, not a monologue”. Use pauses to give people time to reflect, especially when speaking to people of different cultures and when you ask rhetorical questions. Since pauses are uncomfortable for the speaker, give yourself something to do mentally, e.g. counting “1001, 1002, 1003…” (Internal dialogue)

Use stories

“Jesus did not use Power Point… he used parables”. Tell one to make a point; then another one to make another point. Use very clear transitions between stories. Be careful of narrating the story: not good to step in and out of the story. “Take us, don’t tell us”. A story goes directly into the subconscious.

“What can you do to tell the story without words?”. The emotion is in the eyes (“eye-motion”). Reaction tells the story.

In a story: at least one of the characters has to change the emotion from the beginning to the end. Focus on telling better stories. The audience needs to know who is speaking: the best way to achieve it is by using the name of the recipient of the message in the dialogue (no need to change position, just a heel-turn).

V.A.K.S. = Visual Auditory Kinesthetic Smell (strongest one is describing smell)

Invite the audience into the scene (use “you”). “I / you ratio”: Even when telling a personal story, use more times the pronoun “you”.

“Tap and transport”: ask a question about a personal memory of the audience and then bring them into your story (they’ll relate what you say with their story, it’ll be their story). Once telling the story is better to use present tense. Do not ask “How many of you…?”, use instead “Have you…?”, the test is that you would never ask to a friend in a 1-to-1 conversation “How many of you?”.

“It doesn’t matter what you see, it matters what the audience see when you say it”, Patricia Fripp.

Not in favour of memorizing a speech (internalize it). Never give a speech in front of a mirror. Do not memorize gestures (inauthentic).

What do you want the audience to do / think / feel after hearing your speech? You must be able to phrase that message in 10 words or less.

On the use of simple vocabulary/grammar: “the audience wants you present, not perfect”.

Hold the silence before starting the speech (shows confidence): the “Ed Tate scan”. How stable you are in the first 30 seconds tells the audience how stable the message is.

Let it go. The true story is not so important. You may have to twist some details or cut some parts.

Opening: CSI beginning, i.e. directly into the crime scene.

Do not preach. Don’t tell people what to do (“you should”), instead tell what you did, what “we” could do, etc…

Recordings of Toastmasters finals speeches can be found at: Bill Stephens Productions. Darren found out that the champions:

  • Had a coach.
  • Paused.
  • Used Word to write the speeches (counting words).
  • Had a sparkle in the eye (they owned the stage).

If there is anything we should take home from the workshop, it is: “Stage time, stage time, stage time”.

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Giving feedback at Pixar

Reading the a past issue of The Economist I came across the article “Planning for the sequel”, about how Pixar is preparing itself to continue with its creativity levels for the long-term.

The newspaper remarks two aspects of Pixar’s approach: the company puts people before projects and effort in getting people work together. Regarding the second reason, let me paste some of the sentences of the article:

“Employees show unfinished work to one another in daily meetings, so get used to giving and receiving constructive criticism.

[…] This system of constant feedback is designed to bring problems to the surface before they mutate into crises, and to provide creative teams with a source of inspiration.

[…] Pixar demands that each review identify at least five things that did not go well in the film, as well as five that did.”

Having been a member of the public speaking association Toastmasters for two years I have had the chance of seeing hundreds of evaluations. Evaluations of prepared speeches, of impromptu speeches, of meetings, of evaluators, of skilled and beginner speakers… it is not a so easy task to sit and think in a couple of minutes of 5 things that you really liked and some valuable points of improvement. It’s even less easy to speak them up in a structured, candid and, at the same time, encouraging way. And that is another thing that you can learn in Toastmasters: giving feedback through effective evaluations.

See how we do it in written at Madrid Toastmasters club (Excelencia Toastmasters uses the same form in Spanish):

Madrid Toastmasters club evaluation form.

No wonder that the majority of the 12,500 Toastmasters clubs worldwide are corporate clubs.

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