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3 Lesser-known and Inspiring Things that Captains Do. Are Business Leaders on Par?


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Aviation Captains are so experienced and skilled that they can smoothly land a huge plane on the runway, even with strong crosswinds or through a strong storm. This is widely known, as we’ve all been passengers who have experienced great landings and felt the relief that everything went as planned.

Let us today go behind the scenes and discover three very inspiring, but not so well known behaviors of aviation captains, that we can all learn from, especially in the business realm. Businesses would be further ahead if leaders at all levels were displaying these behaviors, and if the C-Suite would push more for them.

  1. They grow their copilots
    This is an intentional and constant effort from the people on the left seat in the cockpit – the captain’s chair – to grow the people on the right seat – the copilot’s chair. The copilots are good, but the captains are better. And the captains – not forgetting they were once sitting on the other chair themselves – make it a personal mission to help, to guide, and to coach the person next to them.

    In other professions this is not a priority. Some people say “my goal as a leader is to achieve my results together with my team. I will of course work with everyone, and I might even say the occasional “well done” or “here’s how you can do this faster, or better,” but I’m not ready to go the extra mile too often. I’m busy enough with my own things. Of course, I’d like them to grow but it’s not my job to make that happen.”

    And in some professions, it’s worse: other people’s growth is seen as a threat. The thinking is “there are not enough ‘captain seats’ for everyone who wants one, and I must protect mine because I worked so hard to get it. Of course, I can’t stop other people’s growth and yes, overall, for the good of mankind I suppose it’s not a bad idea that more people grow, but here, in my turf, I’m the boss and I will make sure things stay this way.”

    Have you worked with people who think like this?

    Why do captains take time to grow their copilots? Because up there, these are the only two people in the plane that can solve a problem and get the plane down safely. You can’t just park on the right side and call for assistance or take a taxi home and come back with someone tomorrow to fix the problem. Anything and everything must be handled on the spot, as the plane swooshes through the sky.

    So, captains know one thing: I need all the help I can get. Who knows when I’ll be flying again with this copilot but if there’s something I can do now to help their growth, I will do it. And other captains, on other planes in the sky, do the same and are now helping my future copilots become even better. By doing this over and over, we make the profession better, we make flying safer and our own jobs just a little bit easier.

  2. They attend to the small things
    One very surprising thing about captains – by contrast with their superhero aura when they walk through the airports and attract everyone’s attention – is their focus on the big things and on the small ones. For instance, if they’re required to do a checklist, they do it. No questions asked.

    They know the plane by heart. Maybe they just flew the first leg of today’s mission and are not even leaving the cockpit before starting preparations for the flight home. But if procedures ask for a series of checks – and they do, abundantly so – they do the checks one by one, calmly, without thinking for a second that this is a waste of time or a dent in their prestige. They are sure that flaps work because they’ve just used them to land. But they check them anyway. They know how much gas they have because they’ve just observed and reported it after landing, but they check it again anyway.

    What would many business leaders do in this same scenario? Sometimes what you hear is, “OK, you handle these, I’ve got to go.”

    If someone comes to a leader with a pre-meeting-checklist, asking for 5-10 minutes of their time to go through things like who is participating, what do we expect from each of them, what are the goals for the meeting, how are we going to start, what are we going to do 15 minutes in if we see we’re stalling, how are we going to handle it if Peter and Paul argue again, are the slides ready, are the notes available etc., etc., how many leaders would say “Sure. Great! Let’s prepare this thoroughly”? Not very many.

    Why do captains attend to these small things? Because they’re not actually small. They each contribute to a safe flight and they each can become big things if not taken care of from the beginning.

    There is a ton of knowhow in aviation and there are many lessons learned, from the millions of flights taken already. So, if by design there must be checklists and the checklists are required to be done by the captain and the copilot, and not by one of the flight attendants coming into the cockpit to do them, this means that’s the best way. And captains will comply.

    Here’s a question for your leaders: what are the things they should in fact attend to more seriously themselves and that are left to someone else or just to chance?

  3. They are 10 minutes ahead
    What does the captain do at 39,000 feet, cruising altitude, middle of the flight, with the copilot actively flying the plane, everything looking good – flying in “dark cockpit” as this situation is referred to, meaning no warning lights, no malfunctions, all smooth? Maybe the captain has a well-deserved coffee. What do you think they do?

    Do they relax, thinking of the holiday coming up next week, or worrying about some trouble they might have at home? No. They’re mentally in the plane.

    In fact, they’re mentally 10 minutes ahead of the plane, thinking about what’s coming up next and what could go wrong.

    Yes, they’ll take a sip from their cup, but their eyes will be on the screens, checking fuel, checking engines, checking the weather map. They’ll observe their copilot. They’ll look outside and notice the mountain ridge below and the hills with forests ahead. They’ll think about airports on their route and check what other planes are around them.

Why are they ahead in their mind? So, they can be ready to act. They stress themselves up so they can be calm when and if something needs to be done. They’re not just happy that they got out from the heavy storm at the departure airport. They’re not just in the present enjoying the quiet time before the big sum of actions that they’ll need to perform on approach to the busy destination airport. They anticipate, so they can handle everything better.

What can business captains take from here? What is our level of anticipation? Yes, on the finance and operations side it’s there, but do all leaders, across functions, have this habit of thinking ahead so that they’re not caught off-guard?

Captains grow their copilots. They attend to the small things. They’re 10 minutes ahead. Let us all check where we stand and make sure we’re good examples for those around us.

Written by Octavian Pantis.

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