Two Good and Two Bad Roles for an Executive

One might be surprised to find a correlation between aviation and leadership. There is a considerable link, as the relationship with a pilot and passengers strikes unmistakable association when put alongside of the relationship between that of a leader that is guiding others in business.  

Here’s a great leadership story as told by my friend Captain Emil Dobrovolschi, Presidential Pilot, Airbus International Test Pilot, and Certified Pilot Examiner, who boasts just shy of 20,000 flight hours on planes and in simulators under his belt.


If this happened in business and not in a cockpit, which role would you be in?

“I was in Ireland, helping a newly founded airline introduce ATR planes (50-70 seat propeller planes) into their fleet. I had already had 2,500 flight hours under my belt at the time. I was a young, energetic captain, as I’m sure I still am now. It was one of my first flights there, and I didn’t know anyone. Every pilot I had shared the cockpit with was a stranger to me, but we all spoke the same language, the language of SOPs – Standard Operating Procedures.

On one of the flights, I flew with an Irish instructor, who was also responsible for checking me on that flight. He was tall and sturdy. He almost crushed the palm of my hand with his handshake, although he was over 60 at the time, recently retired from their national airline. He looked tough, old-school, an instructor-pilot with over 20,000 hours in the cockpit, mostly on massive, long-haul airplanes. We were going to fly together the entire day, from Dublin to Galway, three rounds – that’s six takeoffs and six landings. It’s a running gag in the industry that as a pilot, you should aim for the same number of landings as takeoffs.

Ireland is not known for sunny, windless blue skies, and we were looking at strong winds for the entire day, especially on the western coast. I was getting ready for a difficult day, in part because of the weather but also because of the instructor. The briefing went as usual, and it was obvious that the Irishman was used to commandeering long hauls. His briefing was short and to the point, no jibber-jabber or personal stuff, but at the same time, he wasn’t distant or condescending. After the classic “outbound or inbound?” we decided he would fly the first leg to Galway.

The destination airport had a runway of only 1,289 meters (4,229 feet), and I was used to runways twice as long. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, it was also very narrow – there was a big barn at one of the ends of the runway, which you had to “jump” over to make the landing. The other end was hidden behind the edge of a hill. But the cherry on top of that cake was the lateral wind, strong and relentless across the runway.

When we got to Galway, Captain “Grandpa” slammed the plane so hard on the ground that I thought it was going to break in half. It was the kind of landing where you have to remind yourself that any landing you manage to walk away from on your own two feet is a good one.

I didn’t let myself say anything; I kept my poker face – we did have five more landings together that day – but I couldn’t help but wonder how a pilot as experienced as he was could land the plane like that. We left for Dublin, and it was my turn to land. The runway was longer, true, but the lateral wind was just as merciless as in Galway, and even more turbulent because of the hills to the south. I had a perfect landing, smooth as butter. We both wore poker faces.

Next, we headed out to Galway again, where he made his second landing on the same runway with the same wind, again slamming the plane at the end of the runway. That was too much – I couldn’t believe it! As I was waiting for the passengers to disembark, trying to regain my composure after the second rough landing, I heard the instructor say something. I asked him to repeat himself, convinced that he couldn’t have said what I thought he’d said. He said, “Show me how to land the ATR”, because clearly, he didn’t know how to do it correctly, and he had to learn.

For a few good minutes, I wondered if I had misheard his heavy Irish accent. Maybe it was my upbringing or the culture I came from, but I couldn’t quite understand a pilot ten times more experienced than I was asking me to show him how to land, but there he was, getting ready to be Pilot Monitoring on the next two legs. And I was going to be Pilot Flying! And so, I landed the plane both in Dublin and in Galway, narrating and explaining all the maneuvers for kiss-landing an ATR without skimping on the details.

We approached Dublin for the last time that day, where he was going to land the plane. I was on the edge of my seat, curious to see how it would go. Lo and behold – it was perfect! Same difficult conditions, same brutal lateral wind, but he did it! He had taken in everything I said, perfectly blending the new information with his vast experience.

I came home completely wrecked, I lay across the bed, fully clothed, and I stared at the ceiling for quite a while. I was trying to process the beautiful leadership lesson I had just learned from one of the most experienced instructors and commanders I had ever met.”

Now, you’ve probably found yourself many times in one of these two roles: either the very experienced executive who stays open to new ideas and approaches, or the younger executive who is asked by those more senior to share how this or that is done. That’s very good.

But be sure not to tolerate in your organization the opposite roles: experienced executives who are arrogant and think they know everything, or younger executives who can’t stop bragging about more senior people coming to them for help. The first case is a danger to the team’s results and the second to the team’s culture.

We need everyone to contribute and everyone to be open to learn. When was the last time you surprised your people the same way that Irish captain left my friend with his mouth agape?


An article written by Octavian Pantis.

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