Real Leaders

First Female F-14 Tomcat Fighter Pilot: How to Lead Through Adversity

In this turbulent business environment, leadership requires taking bold steps. No matter what challenges your organization faces—a slowing economy, a merger, new rules, and regulations—the pace of change has never been faster. The sheer unpredictability of things can cause fear and anxiety among your team. Your job as a fearless leader is to throttle back the stress your team is feeling, help them be more agile, and ensure that they can survive and win.

Here are some ways you can boost your team’s resilience and help them shine in tough circumstances.

Clarify the Win

When the winds of change blow in, to stay on track as you are getting bullied about, continue opening the lines of communication. Ask your team, “What are we striving for?” When people are engaged with clear and meaningful goals, they have greater resilience and are more likely to see a challenge as an opportunity. Remind them what the win looks like, and warn them that there will be peaks and valleys. Your whole team may be cruising along, happy as clams—and suddenly get kicked in the teeth by the unexpected. I’ve been there, and it’s not pretty. Grab a box of Kleenex, wipe your eyes and nose, and ask one another, “Okay, what next?” Remember why you started—and remind your team often.

Know your team

Your people are your biggest asset. Remember those “kids” who operate on that flight deck twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, helping keep us pilots alive? You may be surprised to learn how much the average Air Boss knows about his shipmates working the deck. In between flight operations, you can often find the Air Boss chatting with the troops. I know this from watching flight ops up in the tower, hearing the bosses make funny comments over the flight deck radio for all to hear. Getting to know the kids on the deck is smart leadership. When the time comes to push that crew through crappy visibility, unbearable heat, or long stretches of uninterrupted flight operations, those teammates will feel valued—they will feel human.

You can’t expect your team to blindly follow your leadership if you haven’t bothered to invest any time getting to know them. A real human connection builds a solid foundation for when you need your team to power through an extreme situation.
Before a presentation with clients, I always spend time getting to know them, weeks before the event. What matters to them? What obstacles are they facing? What are they trying to achieve? But when discussing these ideas with executive teams, I’ll sometimes hear, “That’s just not possible—I’m too busy to do that.” Yet you’re not too busy to ask your people for extended working hours or pay cuts, or to “manage change” or to make other sacrifices. If you want a resilient team, you need to build one. The least you can do is make an effort to understand what drives your teammates.

Fearless leadership is a people business. It’s about getting your team together to do the impossible while keeping their health, sanity, and even humor intact. Fearless leaders always put the team first, and these team members know they are valued. Valued teammates will go to the mat for you, and you probably won’t even have to ask.
A business team in the pursuit of excellence may not face the same physical dangers and challenges as a fighter pilot or a Navy SEAL, but aspirational goals—the big bets—will require the same courage, tenacity, integrity, perseverance, and flexibility. Overcoming obstacles like chronic stress involves resilience. Choosing people with the right skills, talent, training, and attitude are essential. Without mutual support and trust, your team will get nowhere.

Prepare relentlessly

Now that you know your goal and your team, the question is: How do you achieve results consistently, even if you face adversity? The answer is simple: through relentless preparation and training. Insistence on preparation is one of the priceless gifts a fearless leader can offer his or her team. Being prepared alleviates pressure because your teammates know what to expect—they have already prepared how they will respond to any challenge the environment (or the competition) throws their way. It promotes resilience by increasing their ability to adapt and overcome barriers.
Continue that cycle of Prepare-Perform-Prevail, even on the fly. Adjust and adapt, adjust and adapt, adjust, and adapt—over and over, even while navigating the choppy waters of a crisis. Help your team stay focused on both near-term priorities and long-term goals. It’s like that circus trick of having one foot on two different galloping horses. Successful teams can do this because they have done whatever is necessary to prepare.

Remember the Navy saying: Train like you fight. Increase your team’s coping skills and resilience by practicing over and over. You can’t think that when stress pays a visit, your team will magically rise to the occasion and prepare them to do so. Grittiness is earned.

Continue learning

When change happens, uncertainty and ambiguity can paralyze your team. Fear sets in, caution envelops us, and instead of strapping into our fighter jet and going for it, we curl up and wait for the storm to pass, for things to settle down. But what if this change in your environment is your team’s new normal? You don’t have the luxury of waiting for something to blow over. To remain relevant, you must learn quickly by continuing the open dialogue about what is working and what isn’t. Find a way forward—or make one. Create your future by taking action. Don’t be a passenger in your own life, and don’t let your team’s future ail in the wind. Take risks and learn from your mistakes.

Culture Matters

The culture you promote as a leader could be one of the most significant barriers to success, even more so than the talents (or the lack thereof) of your teammates. When the chips are down, if you punish people who innovate or who dare to go first—or if you don’t reward those who build and maintain a strong team—you won’t attract and retain the types of people who can make stuff happen in a volatile environment. Period. You will quickly lose any competitive advantage, and your current success level will most likely start to slip.

You can’t talk about innovation without understanding that risk is inherent. When you’re trying something new, it will get messy; rarely is something new done the first time correctly. Nor can you give lip service to leadership development or “growing your people” or encouraging your team to be “on the leading edge” if you’re going to shove them aside at the first sign of a struggle. Instead, as a fearless leader, you must understand that culture matters—that you are responsible for growing and developing more resilient people and fostering a more resilient team.

Fearless leaders understand the importance of building a resilient, high-performing team. Resilience on an individual level can fluctuate from time to time, depending on external events in the lives of your employees or teammates. But by promoting the right culture—with your team aligned on a common objective and maintaining a high level of mutual trust and optimism—you can ensure unwavering resilience on a team level. Resilient teams can weather the chronic, high stress of a constantly changing and challenging environment— and those teams will always be more productive and successful in the long run.

Adapted from Fearless Leadership: High-Performance Lessons from the Flight Deck by Carey Lohrenz.

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