image of a plane

Showcase: Leadership Under Pressure

How can leaders thrive in a high pressure environment? Chris looks at what leadership lessons we can learn from pilots and in particular CRM.

The most dynamic businesses today consciously foster leaders who empower their teams to make more effective decisions. This model of leadership drives high performing teams to succeed time after time.

But, driving behavioural change isn’t easy, and often requires radical new thinking. Here, we can learn from the aviation industry, which experienced a radical shift in attitudes towards leadership and culture.

Lessons from Aviation

Disasters in commercial aviation are rare these days. Statistically, flying is safer than driving to the airport. But, this statistic is only a reality because of tough lessons have been learnt through a string of accidents in the 1970’s that rocked the aviation industry to its core.

Through these tragedies, Crew Resource Management (CRM) was born. CRM is a training programme for pilots that focuses on fundamental leadership skills such as:

  • Risk management
  • Dynamic Leadership
  • Crosschecking
  • Decision making
  • Effective communication

Cockpit Culture

In the 70s and 80s NASA and United Airlines developed Crew Resource Management after pilot error led to a string of preventable accidents. The cockpit culture at the time was strictly hierarchical. The prestige of celebrity pilots often meant that crews were afraid to communicate effectively – with disastrous results.

One example is the 1977 Tenerife disaster where two Boeing 747’s crashed into each other on the runway. The Pan American 747 was still taxing down the runway, whilst the captain of the KLM 747 made the decision to take off even though he wasn’t given clearance.

The prevailing attitude in aviation was that the captain was always right. Unchallenged authority in the workplace might cost organisations money – in aviation, it can cost lives. When crew members can’t effectively challenge each other, decision making and teamwork suffer. After several preventable accidents, the culture in the cockpit was addressed by aviation authorities.

How to Shift Thinking and Transform Performance

What can we learn from Crew Resource Management?

Many of us have had to deal with an intimidating superior or two throughout our working lives. However, unlike the aviation industry, many organisations have yet to conduct large-scale research into how undebated decision making, poor workload management and weak communication can lead to business failures.

CRM has made the aviation industry drastically safer. It took the aircraft captains years to embrace CRM because the hierarchical mindset was incredibly strong in aviation – leaders were not used to being challenged.

Today, as attitudes and thinking have moved on, nearly every pilot would now tell you that CRM enables them to work effectively with their teams, and fly more safely than ever before.

Organisations across industries can benefit from the core principles of CRM. With this kind of training, leaders are equipped to maximise productivity and foster a real spirit of empowerment.

When leaders open themselves up to their teams, everyone benefits – not least, the bottom line.

Chris Holmes