Real Leaders

How to Run Your Business like a Tomcat Fighter Pilot

As one of the first female F-14 Tomcat fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy, Carey Lohrenz has learned that understanding what is — and isn’t — within your span of control can help keep stress and anxiety at bay as you overcome obstacles and achieve your goals.

Time spent in the cockpit of an F-14 is a grueling experience — the pressure mounts as you prepare to land on what feels like a bobbing 300-foot-long postage stamp — in the disorienting darkness. The weight of your mission, the awareness of what’s at stake, and countless external factors compound by the millisecond. No matter how many times you’ve nailed it before, landing on an aircraft carrier can be life-or-death dangerous.

The recent pandemic and economic fallout further compound the pressure and uncertainty you face as a business owner. You want to ensure everyone in your organization is supported, whether they are battling physical, emotional, or financial burdens. Repetitive practice and relentless preparation are requirements to navigate peak stress and overwhelm, whether operating a supersonic, twin-engine fighter jet or leading your team. Identifying where to fix your focus, formulating a flight plan, and communicating with your team increase your chances of success.

Study Your Span of Control.

Span of control in the corporate world indicates the number of direct reports you can effectively manage. In the Navy, the concept carries a different interpretation. Effectively managing your span of control — knowing what you can, and should, control at any given time — keeps you alive and helps you accomplish your mission.

Formulate Your Flight Plan.

Without a solid flight plan, your chances of reaching your destination on time are minuscule. Working in a leadership capacity in your organization means your flight plan involves others; your chances of victory increase with a spirit of collaboration and accountability. Beware of the “drift factor” — in aviation, it can take an aircraft off course; in your day-to-day life, you may find yourself drifting due to a lack of awareness, pressure and overload, distractions, and ego. Building checkpoints and markers of success into your flight plan will keep the team on track and energized. To keep everyone aligned and moving forward — especially in times of crisis and uncertainty — I recommend adopting a three-phase approach: Prepare. Perform. Prevail.

Prepare. Bring team members together for a period of planning. Establish the mission objective, analyze threats and obstacles, review resources, and walk through the steps needed to reach your goal. Don’t overlook asking, “Has anyone ever done this before?” Schedule the debrief before acting on your plan, or it will fall under the radar.

Perform. Fighter pilots must act without hesitation, take control, and push the envelope or they will come up short. Performing means following the plan in the face of fear. The confidence needed to execute is rooted in thorough preparation. Set your sights on seeing the upside; let your growth mindset be your superpower. Your solution-based thinking will serve the team well as you face contingencies (expected and otherwise).

Prevail. The debrief is vital to improving future performance. Foster an environment that encourages open discussion around wins and misses as you highlight lessons learned. The goal is always to improve.

Fix Your Focus.

To help students master the prioritization of tasks amid chaos, the Naval Academy introduces the concept of “the Bucket.” The Bucket represents the finite capacity pilots have for “input and subsequent action in the low-altitude environment.” Students learn that the most important tasks must go into the Bucket first. Removing distractions and identifying your top priorities applies in business as well.

I have found that naming my top three priorities for the day is a simple tool with immediate benefits. I write down what my most important work looks like each day — just three things. Failing to do so inevitably results in precious time wasted, teetering between task switching and task overload instead of engaging in focused work. Research shows us that we pay a significant price when attempting to multitask — losing up to 40% of our productive time.

Communicate to Fly in Formation.

The Blue Angels’ classic V-formation showcases their undeniable technique and talent. In the workplace, the uplift created by operating in alignment — with shared goals and values — helps everyone soar faster toward the goal. Your one key vision should be accessible at all times; strive for something that is simple, memorable, and repeatable. Staying in sync calls for consistent communication and being honest with one another about what’s working and what isn’t. Communicate in a manner that is concise, precise, clear, and consistent. In high-stress situations, be aware that one’s ability to process information is compromised by as much as 80%. Especially in high-pressure scenarios, keep the following in mind:

  • Speak clearly and slowly.
  • Anticipate, prepare, and practice.
  • Establish trust by establishing that you care.
  • Repeat the most important points.
  • Balance each negative with three to four positives.
  • The first and last things you say are most likely to be remembered.
  • Speak in short sentences and use simple words.
  • Clarity around your destination makes for a more effective and efficient flight.

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