November 16th, 2017 by Ida Banek

Why Every Leader Should Be Trained In a Cockpit?

Airline pilots go through about a month of simulator training before they can fly on the line. In this way, the trainee pilot practices problem-solving in controlled, real-life scenarios of equipment failure and adverse weather; in day and night environments without actual risk to life and limb. Once a trainee makes a mistake, training can be paused, discussed, reviewed and repeated. This repeated exposure to adverse and emergency situations in a simulator, in conjunction with non-judgmental, constructive feedback, gives the trainee pilot the confidence and knowledge to be able to respond instantly and appropriately to issues that emerge in real flight situations.

As much as pilots, leaders have lives in their hands as their actions have far-reaching consequences. For high-performing, result-oriented organizations, failure is not an option at any level, especially not at higher altitudes. But at the same time, we all know that the most valuable lessons in our personal and professional lives are generated from our mistakes and not our successes. So how can we resolve this development paradox?

I feel there is a lot to be learned from simulator trainings when it comes to leadership development programs designed for our emerging talents. Don’t you think that in this disruptive, complex and ambiguous 21st century world successful leadership depends as much on diligent preparation as on brilliant maneuvers in the cockpit?

In a recent article, Ian C. Woodward wrote about three distinct altitudes of leadershipthinking. According to his model at the lowest level, 5 feet, we develop self-awareness, at 50 feet we activate tactical thinking and at the highest level for commercial aircraft (50.000 feet) we can see the big picture. I am a firm believer that well-planned exposure to all three levels early in a career can enable young talent to experience altitude sickness at the lowest cost and significantly increase their ability to choose the most effective leadership altitude in real business situations.

In line with cockpit simulators, I think that successful organizations should strive to provide learning platforms where talented employees can experience complex business scenarios, take risks in the decision-making process and generally apply leadership skills in a safe place that protects them from doing real damage to themselves and their organization. Equally important, business simulations should provide employees with the opportunity to learn from failures in cooperation with professional coaches so their most vulnerable development moments are not subject to senior management’s scrutiny and internal corporate grapevines. This approach would allow them the freedom to experiment and fail, without fear of consequences.

Just as future pilots can pause the training at times of uncertainty or error, analyze their mistakes, learn from them and repeat the practice – our emerging talents deserve constructive support in the form of contextual feedback to learn what they did well and where they need to improve to be ready for their launch into leadership.

In my career, I have experienced many take-offs and landings. For the most part, they were fully on schedule, smooth and easy, but a few came close to disaster. I definitely developed the most in these traumatic situations. But without any doubt, generating those experiences with an oxygen mask and the cabin staff’s guidelines would have made an incredible difference for me.

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