Marcus Lindblom

Essential Skills for Pilots - Leadership and Teamwork

Marcus Lindblom


We are surrounded by leadership and teamwork all around us. Football coaches, business leaders, political leaders, leaders in the student groups and organizations and of course, leaders in the cockpit.

Even though we see leaders everywhere, leadership is a concept that most people have difficulties defining. Maybe it is because there are just as many types of leaders, as there are people on this planet?

Check out the full overview of what it takes to be a professional pilot here.

So, what is great leadership? What makes a great leader? Is the Captain the only leader on board an aircraft? How do you create an efficient and synergized team? These are a few of the questions I will try to answer in this blog post. 

A pilot should demonstrate effective leadership and team work

In a way, teamwork and leadership are the same, we just view them from different perspectives. Leadership involves teamwork - and the quality of a leader depends on how successful the leader is in building relationships with his team. 

Who should I blame?

During flight training the students are encouraged to take responsibility for their decisions and actions, both in flight related situations and in other areas. Why did I show up late? Was it because of traffic, or was it because I left my apartment too late despite my knowledge of the traffic situation? Why did I flunk the test? Was it because of a poor teacher, or did I simply not prepare well enough for the test? The difference in perspective is monumental - as soon as you blame someone or something else, you are giving away your control and ownership of the problem. By taking responsibility, you are telling yourself that "I'm in control of my own situation". This of course, is a highly important safety factor in the world of aviation. 

As I am sure you will agree with, there are different types of leaders out there. In aviation, the synergistic leader is the one we strive to become. Compared to the autocratic (authoritarian) and the laissez-faire (no leadership at all) leader, the synergistic leader is a master of balancing authority and being humble. Synergistic leaders involve others, yet they are clear with their intentions. They give criticism - yet admit to their own mistakes, and foremost, they take responsibility. 

What makes a great leader?

One of the definitions of a leader is: 

a person whose ideas and actions influence the thought and the behavior of others.

Leadership and teamwork go together like peanut butter and jelly. In fact, great leadership starts with yourself. A wise person once said; "If you cannot influence yourself, you cannot influence others and if that is the case, you are not a leader." At the same time, I would claim that we are all leaders in one way or the other.

Every time you decide to get out of bed and go to work in the morning, every time you do your homework instead of watching TV and every time you go out for a run, you are leading yourself.

We lead ourselves every day and from time to time we fail in our personal leadership. It is usually what happens when we spend too much time randomly browsing the internet because we are bored, telling ourselves that "I have more important things I should be doing instead, but next time I promise myself that I will prioritize better." (Yet we know it is probably not going to happen next time either...)

What great leaders have managed to figure out is how they work. Which behaviors help them succeed? Which leads to failure? One could say that they have "cracked the code" of their personal leadership, how to find motivation, self-discipline and how to manage time. Once they understand themselves, they can begin to try and understand others - a key factor in successful leadership and teamwork. 

In my experience, when most people think of leadership or the traits of a commander, they think of a domineering, take-charge and charismatic individual. However, a leader doesn't have to be charismatic or charming at all to lead. In fact, charisma can often be an obstacle to great leadership, as it stops people from questioning the leader. If people only rely on their leader for answers and stop thinking for themselves, the collective brainpower of the team will diminish and lead to worse decisions being made.

Self-aware leaders find a way to compensate for this. A historic example is Winston Churchill, a man with powerful charisma. Winston knew this about himself and thus he created the Central Statistical Office to gather pure, uncensored facts on which he could base his decisions on. 

In aviation, the ability to let yourself be questioned is of the utmost importance. This is true for every single member of a crew on board an aircraft. They have a mission to complete together - transporting the passengers and cargo safely from point A to point B. The task is simple, what makes it complex is the fact that human beings are not mission oriented robots (thankfully) and thus we often prioritize social relationships instead of questioning our colleagues. During the Multi Crew Cooperation course towards the final parts of flight training, our students study and practice how to balance these factors so they can contribute to a highly efficient and synergized crew. 

How many Captains are there on board? 

This is a tricky question, since the entire aircraft could theoretically be filled with Captains. However, there is only one Commander on board. As the Pilot in Command (PIC), the Captain has the ultimate responsibility and authority over the flight, but the First Officer must have the ability to question and challenge the Captain when appropriate. This ability is called assertiveness

The balance between the authority of the commander and the assertiveness of the First Officer is called the trans-cockpit authority gradient. If the Captain acts like a dictator and the First Officer is reserved, the gradient is steep. On the flipside, if the Captain needs to gain approval from every team member before making a decision, the gradient is close to zero. None of these scenarios are desirable. In the first example, teamwork will be close to non-existent - In the second example, communication and responsibilities may be blurred. A middle ground in between these two examples gives us a favorable work climate, or what we would call good Crew Resource Management (CRM).

It is up to every crew member to create great CRM, not only the Captain - "It takes two to tango" is a popular saying, or as I usually say, "it takes CREW to tango". 

One example of when synergy among the crew failed, was in 1978 where the crew on United Airlines Flight 173 ran out of fuel. The Captain failed to listen to the concerns of the other crew members regarding the fuel level and the crew members were not assertive enough when they stated the problem. A more recent example from 2009 is Air France 447 where two pilots, both First Officers, were unclear about who was in control of the aircraft. 


Working with weirdos

As a professional pilot, you should be able to cooperate with anyone in your team. You are expected to cooperate well with people that can be vastly different from yourself, they might even be rooting for Manchester United, when you are a Liverpool fan! (Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to overcome these deeply rooted differences ;))

We all know that weird person (this is a highly subjective observation by the way) that tends to annoy us, and for some inexplicable reason they are able to "push all our buttons". When you are locked in a cockpit with them at 40 000 feet however, you have to work well together and overcome your differences. It is impossible to "click" with everyone, the key to getting along is usually to distinguish between a person and his/her behavior. Doing so makes it much easier to respect the other person. Being able to work with anyone, despite any personal differences you might have with a person, is a core skill for an aviation professional. You need to lead yourself and control how you behave. And who knows, maybe the weirdo is you?

Distinguishing personality from behavior is also critical to understand every time you want to criticize someone, or when they criticize you. When a student receives feedback after a training session, it is always their behavior we comment on, not their personality. We have good reasons for taking this approach, since it is only the latter that can be changed. 

Where are leaders born? 

On occasion, you will hear the expression that she or he was born to be a leader, or born to be this or that. Is this true? Are we simply destined for a certain path through our heritage? This can be a controversial subject and scientists have struggled with these questions for more than a century. Recent studies show that genes have a substantial impact on IQ, abilities and skills. They don't give us the full story however and have only proven to paint 50% of the picture in twin studies. Other factors that come into play are things like environment, education and experience. 

When it comes to IQ, science has told us that we are not born with a certain IQ, but with an IQ potential. A person with a high IQ potential, that challenge his/her brain cells with education and learning will have a high IQ. Consequently, the same person might just as well have a low IQ if they haven't put in the effort to reach their full potential. 

Personally, I believe it works the same way with teamwork and leadership. Experience is the best teacher and with knowledge, training and practice anyone can increase their communication skills, conflict solving skills or anything related to great leadership. It is all about having the right attitude, a curious mindset and being eager to learn. 

There is a saying that goes "To be a great leader, you need to be a great follower". If you want to develop as a leader, you need to listen to others, be open to new perspectives and have an ability to adapt when faced with changing circumstances. It is also crucial that you respect other people and most importantly - that you can learn from others. All of these attributes characterize a great follower and a great leader. 

In the early days of my career, I asked my Captain what the difference is between being a Captain and a First Officer, since we usually perform the same duties on board. He explained that "on a daily basis you are right, there is not much of a difference, but once you are up there at night and critical situations arise, you look to the left and all you see is your own reflection and the condensation of your own breath in the cockpit window -  that's when you realize that you're the Captain". 

Behavioral indicators

During flight training, 50-80% is about growing as a person and developing your personal leadership. Almost anyone can learn how to fly, but becoming a great team member and learning the airman ship of a Commander is truly a challenge. There are several behavioral indicators we assess to help our students develop their leadership and teamwork abilities throughout the training programs at OSMAA. 

  1. Understands and agrees with the crew's roles and objectives.
  2. Creates an atmosphere of open communication and encourages team participation. 
  3. Uses initiative and gives directions when required. 
  4. Admits mistakes and takes responsibility. 
  5. Anticipates and responds appropriately to other crew members' needs. 
  6. Carries out instructions when directed.
  7. Communicates relevant concerns and intentions. 
  8. Gives and receives feedback constructively. 
  9. Confidently intervenes when important for safety.
  10. Demonstrates empathy and shows respect and tolerance for other people. 
  11. Engages others in planning and allocates activities fairly and appropriately according to abilities. 
  12. Addresses and resolves conflicts and disagreements in a constructive manner.
  13. Projects self-control in all situations. 

Teamwork is everything

The Hudson river landing in 2009 is a good example of excellent leadership, decision making and teamwork all coming together, which in turn led to a successful outcome in a difficult situation. Many people have heard about Captain Chesley Sullenberger, especially since the movie "Sully" came out. 

Chesley displayed exceptional leadership and decision making in the Hudson river accident, what many tend to forget however, is that fantastic teamwork was what led to the successful water landing. Without First Officer Jeffrey Skiles' ability to focus on the task and his ability to lead himself in the stressful event they had never practiced before, the outcome could have been different. There were many years of training, learning and experience behind the successful landing. The question Chesley asked his copilot only 22 seconds before they landed on water, perfectly illustrates the magnificent work climate and leadership on board this flight. 

"-Got any ideas?", to which Skiles replies "-Actually not"

I think that says it all...

Conclusions and useful advice

  • Understand that a great team consists of a mix of personalities. When you are in a group of people, try to appreciate the differences and use it as a resource. When I did my type rating on the Avro RJ 100, it was together with a colleague that I know very well. We had a lot of fun, but we also made the same mistakes, which was frustrating. Our brains were simply too wired together after many years of friendship - so instead of complementing each other, we simply fell into the same traps. If you work with someone different from yourself, chances are that you will make up a better team. 

  • Rid yourself of prestige. Prestige might be a good thing when you set high standards and professional pride on your own performance, but you should be able to admit mistakes and not take yourself too seriously. Ask yourself what is most important - to solve the task or to protect your ego? 

  • Be direct and clear when communicating to avoid misunderstandings. When it comes to working as a pilot - you are paid to discover mistakes and errors, therefore you will have to speak up from time to time. You shouldn't feel bad for doing your job. A way of achieving this is to be authentic instead of over analyzing every word you say - just speak your mind! People will respect you for being honest and being yourself. 

  • When solving a problem in a team and you come up with an idea that can solve the problem, listen to others before you share your own ideas. This is a great way of allowing your team to reach its full potential and has the added benefit of your other team members feeling involved. 

  • When something goes wrong, ask yourself "what could I have done differently?". We all make mistakes, but if you want to succeed in developing your leadership, practice taking responsibility and learn from your mistakes. Assume responsibility when something goes wrong and praise others when they get it right. 

 What are your thoughts on leadership? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below. 


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