Developing Pilot Leadership

5 Easy Steps to Developing a DIY Pilot Leadership Program For YOU!

5 Easy Steps to Developing a DIY Pilot Leadership Program For YOU!

There are lots of articles on flying tips and instruction.  However there is very little written about what to expect when you finally make it to that airline job.  All the years you spent perfecting your flying skills and your abilities have paid off, but now what?  Is it still about learning the plane or new systems or is there something else to master?  Consider these items as you develop pilot leadership.

Most pilots get so involved in all the training and building time that they forget to develop an actual pilot persona..  Pilots are the ambassadors of an airline and they have considerable influence on the operation as well as the passengers.  When I say influence, I am not referring to operations.  The pilot in the operations mindset is merely a spoke in the wheel of getting a flight from A to B.  What I am referring to here is building your character.  Just like training and experience it takes time and nurturing to build a leadership character that people will actually look up too and want to follow.  I put together a short list of traits that most people never really think about, but will serve you well in your career.

  1. You are perceived as the leader

    .  Pilots have been trained to handle all kinds of emergencies and also trained to eliminate panic and worry as they work together to solve problems.  Most passengers know that airline pilots are the consummate professional and you are usually labeled that in their minds until you give them a reason to change it.  Being polite and cordial is a great starting point.  A lot of pilots are caught up in the fact that they “are in charge” and have a problem relating to people, crew members and even passengers.  Most passengers have some sort of stress level when they travel, whether from their kids, the weather, traffic, family or just a bad day.  An extra effort in being polite and happy goes a long way in people’s perception.  It can also be measured in how well they think your going to do your job.  The pilot group as a whole needs to take special care in how our group is being perceived.  Pilot leadership has to be developed and maintained.  The best example that I can think of is the example of a car salesman or dealership.  A common misconception is that used car salesman are of skeptical character and not looked upon in high favor.  That is the perception that that industry has groomed for itself whether they like it or not.  Is it fair?  Probably not, but that preconceived notion as to be overcome before you are willing to trust them to their word about a cars condition and price.  If that industry has a bad reputation, it’s really up to the people in it to find a way to change that perception.  Airline pilots are automatically given a level of respect by most passengers.  But it is up to the pilot group as a whole to make sure we groom that by working on our individual characters and being receptive to input.  This can be somewhat awkward at times but if people really care about the industry, it will help everyone out in the long run.  I remember once when I was a first officer, hearing a captains brief to our flight attendants which was rather rude and conceited.  I decided to respectfully bring it up in cruise later that hour.  To make a long story short, he was not aware that was how he came off and actually was receptive to hearing my input.  That makes life easy when we as a pilot group can be receptive to how we treat others.  Remember it’s not all about how well you can fly the plane anymore.  Everyone can fly well and everyone gets better over time, so big deal.  Not everyone is willing to be humble and work on becoming a great leader, it takes work.

  2. You are the ambassador for some child’s best memory. 

    I think it is the greatest thing when a kid gets to visit the cockpit either before or after the flight.  These are golden opportunities to inspire the next generation of pilots and to plant those seeds of career.  I know of a lot of pilots who first were inspired to become a pilot because someone let them see the front office.  Yet so many pilots are guarded about letting kids come up front for a look.  Listen, it is imperative that we do this, too many kids do not get the opportunity to be wowed by someone or something.  I have heard some say they don’t like kids, and that’s why they don’t invite them.  Perhaps that is something to overcome and change if that is your thinking.  I look at it like this, that seat is just as much mine, as it is a child’s when they come fly with me.  Let me encourage you to take extra care to put them in it, put some headphones on them and take their picture so mom and dad can put them on Facebook.  These acts of kindness go a long way especially when the weather is bad, we lose their bags, the plane is late or there are delays.  Taking the opportunity to put a check mark on the positive side of their flight experience is a chance we always should take.  Even if the kids are too young to remember, the parents are taking note and that makes a huge difference.  This is a huge character trait of pilot leadership.

  3.  Say hello to your passengers.   I have been a captain at a major airline for 14 years now, it never ceases to amaze me when I say hello on the PA outside of the cockpit.  Some people are shy and do their briefing from the confines of the flight deck and I understand that.  But the minute you step out that door and state who you are, every head looks up and pays attention.  Most passenger briefings are way too long and way to monotone and most people ignore it.  But tell them who you are and give them the opportunity to put a face with a name is huge.  People want to see who is in charge, they love some interaction even if it’s just seeing your face.  I try to stand at the door and say hello to people when they walk in the door, people love it.  It never ceases to amaze me how a little personality can make someone feel less stressed and more comfortable.
  4. Crew is family. 

    Let’s face it, if you work as a pilot, you can be gone a lot.  Traveling is part of the gig and sometimes you can spend more time with your crew then you do with your kids.  The environment of airline travel is really not about ensuring everyone’s needs are met.  I always take the opportunity to ask our flight attendant crews if they need a meal or coffee if I am going into the terminal. Flight attendants are not always given the time nor the opportunity to get some food, the mere offer is appreciated.  This is probably the easiest way of developing your pilot leadership, people want to follow leaders that care about them.   If you are working on the holidays, it is so fun to take a few moments and make it better for someone who maybe separated from their families.  There is always room to bring candy and cookies to put a smile on their face.  I remember a specific event when we had a particularly long day of flying from coast to coast.  About a third of the way there was a buzz on the PA from one of the flight attendants announcing she made us lunch.  She planned out a homemade lunch as a surprise for the pilots and crew (first time I met her). She brought everything from home and took the time to make us chicken burritos from scratch along with fresh guacamole.  I was blown away and I have never forgotten that.  Those random acts of kindness get etched in our memories and last into our retirement as a highlight of people we work with.

  5. Last but not least is discipline

    . This may sound funny or even odd, but the sooner you develop a discipline to do the right thing, the more impact you will make on the industry as a pilot.  Do you have a 5 am showtime, then work the math problem in reverse so that you can still be a few minutes early and be well caffeinated and have a solid nights sleep.  That may mean a 9 pm bed time and missing your favorite Monday night football, but we owe it to our passengers to be be well rested and ready to go.  I have often said I would hate the idea of my surgeon rushing to the hospital at the last minute, frantic from traffic and only having a few hours of sleep.  I want my doctor in much better shape than that and I think we would all agree to that.  We hold people’s lives in our hands and it takes discipline to make sure we present ourselves in the best popular scenario.  This form of pilot leadership will only be recognized by yourself, but it is a form of integrity that will serve you well in the long run.

Hopefully this article has inspired you to think about your career in aviation differently. It is up to us a flight crews to take care of the industry and how people perceive us in our roles to transport them around the world.  Developing your self is as important as developing pilot leadership.

Ken Schulte is a major airline pilot as well as owner and operator of Airspeed Junkie a unique supplier of pilot supplies and unique gift items in the aviation industry.  He also is a co-host on an aviation podcast called Sky Talk Radio which pokes fun at the airline industry from a crew point of view.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *