The Aerodynamics of Leadership

Just like the wings on a fighter jet, good leaders provide lift—they take their teams to new heights. But there is more to the analogy. Lift is not free. Lift does not operate in isolation. Climbing higher, faster and farther in an airplane requires a careful balance between lift, thrust, weight and drag. The forces that act on an airplane provide a useful analogy to the dynamics leaders must balance to make their teams successful.

Working directly in opposition to lift, is weight. The heavier an airplane is, the more lift you have to generate. Reducing unnecessary weight is an essential consideration. Think about weight in your role as a leader. What baggage are you carrying around that is making it harder for you to soar? Are you burdened by past failures? Are you carrying teammates who don’t want to do their part? Are you holding on to old ideas, products that aren’t selling, or legacy ways of doing business? All of those represent weight that you need to jettison if you want to fly high.

Thrust is the most exciting and most costly component of generating lift. Thrust is what pushes the airplane through the air and generates lift from the wings. For leaders, thrust is your drive, your motivation, your dedication, your devotion to the team and the mission. Understand that thrust is not free. There is not unlimited fuel in the tank. There are times you have to conserve fuel so you have enough thrust to complete the flight. Focus and nurture your sources of thrust. Surround yourself with people who fire you up and fuel your engine. Recognize that no engine can run forever. Take the time to take care of yourself. If you run out of fuel, just like an airplane, you will eventually stall, crash and burn! No one follows a stalled leader.

Lots of thrust is good, but there is an aerodynamic cost to producing thrust. It is called drag. In general, the faster you go, the more drag you create. The simplest way of thinking about drag, is as you go faster, there is just more air you have to push out of the way. Leaders who are going fast will also create drag in terms of things that are trying to hold you back. The faster you go, the more attention you will attract. That is when institutional bias works against you. That is when people accuse you of being too young, out of your lane or that you haven’t paid your dues. If you are new to the domain, people will see you trying to go fast, but dismiss you because you do not have an established track record. Be patient, all good ideas have a gestation period. A fighter jet can never eliminate drag, not matter how well designed and as a leader you will always deal with drag. Understand that you cannot overcome drag with more thrust. Sometimes you have to lower the nose, ease up on the stick and look to reengage when conditions are more favorable.

Leaders are the source of lift, but they must understand lift is not free. Leaders work to reduce excess weight, generate thrust over the long term and efficiently deal with drag.

Copyright 2020  Brett Williams, Maj Gen USAF (Ret)  All Rights Reserved.


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