Tag Archives: leadership

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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Bean counters turned risk managers

In a previous post I wrote about the Titanic as an example of disaster of project management, drawing from a conference I attended.

At the end of the post I reminded the theory of safety in systems seen as layers of cheese with some holes in them. The speaker did not enter into risk management, but rather in communication, teamwork and leadership, nevertheless she acknowledged the side of risk management to the case.

"What management is", by Joan Magretta.

“What management is”, by Joan Magretta.

While reading the book “What management is”, by Joan Magretta, I recently came across the case of the Ford Pinto which I did not know:

In the 1970s, the Ford Pinto taught the nation the basics of cost-benefit analysis. The car had a design flaw in the gas tank that caused at least fifty-nine deaths. Rubber liners would have fixed the problem at a cost of $137 million. But careful calculations of the benefits – all costs associated with those burned and killed down to the flowers at the funeral – only added up to $49.5 million. Cost-benefit analysis said it just didn’t pay to redesign the Pinto. The lesson at the time seemed pretty clear, and many baby boomers grew up suspicious about management and its methods. […] (excerpt from “What management is”)

You may see in the article of the Wikipedia here more references to the case, including an apparently famous article at the time, Pinto Madness, which appeared in the Mother Jones magazine. Some excerpts from that article:

Because assembly-line machinery was already tooled when engineers found this defect, top Ford officials decided to manufacture the car anyway […]

For more than eight years afterwards, Ford successfully lobbied, with extraordinary vigor and some blatant lies, against a key government safety standard that would have forced the company to change the Pinto’s fire-prone gas tank. […]

Ford waited eight years because its internal “cost-benefit analysis,” which places a dollar value on human life, said it wasn’t profitable to make the changes sooner. […]

I place myself the same question again: Have we progressed since then?

And again: Today we like to think that yes. More requirements regarding safety are put into projects. Regulations are passed to ensure safety. Risk management is used as part of project management to ensure that the kind of decisions taken at the time of the Ford Pinto today they are taken without overlooking the risks behind them.

However, I wanted to remark this time the need and criticality of placing safety at the driving seat of cost-benefit analysis, of evaluating risks and mitigations, budget reductions, targets setting, etc. As Charles Munger uses to say all these frameworks and mental models together may create a lollapalloza effect, that is the confluence of incentives and biases acting together may result in the overlooking of serious risks which down the road (after the fact) would seem impossible to have been overlooked (as in the cases of the Titanic or the Ford Pinto).

I believe this takes the utmost importance especially in an industry like aerospace, where the words “safety first” cannot be just a phony industry mantra.

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The Titanic: a project management disaster

The Titanic (public domain image, taken from Wikimedia, by F. Stuart).

Few days ago, I attended a conference on an example of a project management disaster: the Titanic, the British ship which sank in its maiden trip from Southampton to New York in 1912 causing the death of above 1,500 passengers, above 2 thirds of those aboard.

[The conference was part of the same cycle of which I attended another one about 2 months ago about the success of the management project for the delivery of the infrastructure, design and construction of buildings, transport and the legacy of the London 2012 Olympic Games (I wrote about it here).]

Learning from a well-known disaster, as opposed to a success, made the audience more eager to listen to Ranjit Sidhu, a consultant who has made extensive research about the Titanic and has written the book “Titanic Lessons in Project Leadership“.

She was going to focus the conference on 3 sides of project management: communication, leadership and teamwork (1), and the problems which each of those originated in the disaster.

Titanic captain E. J. Smith (public domain image, taken from Wikimedia, author: New York Times).

Sidhu started giving an introduction of some of the characters involved in the project to show the kind of power plays and conflicts that took place at the time of taking decisions. Some of those characters were: Bruce Ismay (chairman of White Star Line), Lord Pirrie (chairman of the shipbuilding company Harland and Wolff), J.P. Morgan (American banker who financed the formation of International Mercantile Marine Company, mother company of White Star Line), Alexander Carlisle (chief engineer of the project in Harland and brother-in-law of Pirrie), Thomas Andrews (successor of Carlisle), Captain Smith (sea-captain of the Titanic).

From the beginning of the project the mantra that the Olympic line of boats was going to be unsinkable was created due to some features which indeed made the boats more secure than others at the time, as well as the largest and most luxurious. From that point onwards, several psychological flaws impeded perceptions to be re-evaluated, messages to get across, decisions to be questioned, etc.

For some of the characters (Carlisle and Andrews) safety was the top objective, to the point that when the number of life boats was decided to be reduced against the engineers’ criteria Carlisle resigned as chief engineer of the project and left Harland despite of being a relative of the chairman.

For other characters in the story the emphasis was in the size or the luxury: an ample dinning room, clean views from the cabins (not disturbed by life boats, for instance), etc.

The power play, the financial pressure on the project, the deadlines of both departure and arrival in New York, the image to keep before the press, etc., all made that several decisions were taken despite of compromising technical features (life boats reduction and placement), manufacturing operations (working in increasing shifts due to the delay caused by the repair of the Olympic at the same shipyard), operational decisions (such as short time for sea trial of the ship, radio operators priorities and incentives misalignment…), etc., adding to the diminished safety of the trip.

Some of the psychological flaws that were going on when taking those decisions include: anchoring effect (the image of the Titanic as unsinkable was fixed in the mindset despite of decisions compromising safety), bandwagon effect, confirmation bias (negative signals being filter out vs. acknowledging supporting evidences), conformity to the norm, framing effect, normalcy bias (denial and underestimation of the consequences of the disaster once occurred), etc.

Last minute misfortunes added up to the disaster: missing binoculars for the scouts (due to the departure of a crew component who held them), a shorter rope to perform ice tests, radio messages from the Californian boat not being prioritized by operators to be brought to the main deck…

The end to the story is well-known.

Have we progressed as a society since them?

Today we like to think that yes. More requirements regarding safety are put into projects. Regulations are passed to ensure safety. Risk management is used as part of project management to ensure that the kind of decisions taken at the time of the Titanic today they are taken without overlooking the risks behind them.

However, I would like to bring 3 questions raised by colleagues in the Q&A session that followed the presentation:

  • Of the cited characters, who could have been more proactive to prevent the disaster? Taking into account that Carlisle, the chief engineer, went to the point of resigning without (a seemingly) major effect to the fate of the ship.
  • How can we react to a pressure situation under a powerful sponsor? We can try to find allies, framing the situation as an “us” as a group instead of opposing the sponsor.
  • If the Titanic hadn’t sunk, would it be seen as an example of success in project management instead of a disaster? You may dismiss the point too quickly by thinking “oh, yes, but it happened that it sank!“.

Here, I remembered the theory of the safety in systems seen as layers of safety added one after the other. Each of the layer may have some holes in it just as a portion of cheese (typical image used in aerospace projects). By having several layers, accidents are prevented in most of the cases. However, from time to time the holes in the layers are perfectly aligned and the accident happens (lack of sea trials, radio messages not passed, urgency to reach New York, scouts without binoculars, improper ice tests, power vs. authority struggle in that precise trip in which the chairman of the company travels alongside the captain…).

Cheese model of safety layers in a system.

Cheese model of safety layers in a system.

My takeaways from the conference are:

  • to continuously remind ourselves of the flaws we have in our mental processes (I recommend a couple of books to that respect: “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman and “Poor Charlie’s Almanack“, by Charlie Munger),
  • to sharpen our perception of risks (both at work and daily life),
  • to understand that we are a layer (with our own holes) in the safety system (both at work and daily life).

(1) She did not enter much into risk management despite of acknowledging that it had not worked (or rather overlooked).

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