Why leading transformation is just like flying a plane

by Greg Taylor

Leading people through transformational change can be challenging – requiring vision, commitment and a strong people focus. In my work helping leaders transform their organisations, I’ve come to appreciate some similarities between my early career in the Royal Australian Air Force and what it takes to be successful in leading transformational change. This blog explores key tips for leaders trying to achieve a smooth flight path for their transformation.
 

During my time in the Air Force, I amassed over 3,000 hours flying military C130 Hercules aircraft, operating all over the world and flying with highly professional people. It takes skill to operate an aircraft, but likewise it takes skill to lead people through transformational change. Here are 4 tips from flying that are also valuable for transformation leaders.

Pick a point on the horizon

To fly a plane smoothly, with grace, style and confidence, it’s crucial to set your course, pick a point on the far horizon and keep the aircraft pointed towards that point. It may sound simple, but it’s easy to get caught up in what’s happening in the immediate bubble around the aircraft and trying to micro-manage speed, heading, or altitude. You end up with your head in the cockpit, trying to anticipate minor corrections, and using lots of energy and ‘brain space’ just to try to stay within that bubble. Lifting your eyes out of the cockpit and managing towards a point on the far horizon immediately reduces the stress. It’s easier to steer towards a distant point; you get a much better sense of any changes in trajectory relative to the horizon and you can tune in much better to changes in speed.

Leaders need to build clarity around where the organisation is heading and establish a genuine and compelling sense of purpose about the future. By getting people to lift their heads out of the cockpit and focus on the horizon, the effort moves from minor adjustments and micro-management of the here and now and becomes more about tuning in to the bigger signals of success. If everyone picks the same point on the horizon, the likelihood of everyone getting there successfully is not left to chance.

You need to generate lift

Flying isn’t like driving a car – you need to work with forces in three dimensions. Lift is used to overcome the weight of the aircraft and drag counteracts the thrust. The aircraft has a variety of controls to pivot up or down and to turn and “yaw” left and right. The pilot must understand and manage the balance between the various forces to alter the trajectory and operate the aircraft throughout its journey.

In the same way, leading change isn’t always a linear, singular dimensional experience. Leaders must find ways to energise and mobilise people in a way that creates positive momentum. They need to balance the forces of business-as-usual with the forces of transformation, balance the employee experience with the customer experience, and manage the needs of a variety of different stakeholders. A leader must adopt a mindset where these elements work in harmony, shifting the balance towards positive and sustainable change.

Trust your instruments

When you fly in cloud, the challenge is to keep your aircraft on track when you can’t see where it is or where it is going. How do you stay safe and manage the anxiety that emerges when you lose line of sight? An aircraft has instruments to provide data to the pilot to manage in this environment. A pilot must learn to balance instinct that comes from the senses, with the information that is presented on the instrument panel. To build trust, pilots need to have confidence that the instruments are accurate – gathering data from several instruments to build insights - and they need to know which instruments to monitor at what time.

In the same way, leaders of transformational change need to build their own “dashboard”, carefully selecting the data points that will help them stay on track with change when things get hazy. They need to build skills in monitoring and responding to information in a way that helps reduce anxiety about progress and keeps their organisation on a tight trajectory to success.

It takes a team to run a mission

Flying is not a one-person show. A large aircraft needs a team of people to operate it and to achieve a complex mission. Even fighter pilots rely on people to maintain the aircraft, people to coordinate activities in the skies, people to gather intelligence and plan for mission success. The pilot may have the hands on the controls, but without the contribution and accountability from everyone else in the team and a level of humility in the pilot, success will be elusive.

Likewise, transformations involve teams of specialists who deliver their skills in a way that will provide results far beyond that of any single contributor. Leaders need to assign clear accountabilities and foster end-to-end collaboration to achieve success. Transformation, by it’s very nature, goes beyond the boundaries of one function. The leader may have his or her hands on the controls, but it is the mindset and behaviour of everyone else in the team that will bring about successful change.

Are your leaders and managers equipped to run the business, whilst changing it?