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Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit

Updated: Jul 16, 2021

I earned my pilot’s license one month after I graduated from high school. Initially, this was a fun activity that I knew my fighter pilot father would support; now I know it was my first real brush with leadership development. Just as a pilot is judged on her take-offs and landings, a school leader is judged by her school’s pick-up and drop-off procedures. Parents don’t see what happens in between, but they’ll judge your ability to lead between 8 am and 3 pm and by the way you lead at 7:30 am and 3:30 pm. To fly a plane or lead a school, you need five essential skills, so you’ll have the trust, faith, and support of everyone all of the time. These skills are Confidence, Multi-tasking, Time Management, Problem Solving, and Adaptability.

Confidence: You know it when you hear it.

As the pilot, you have to make the calls, and you have to speak with confidence. When I’m ready to taxi, I clearly state, “Charlotte Ground, Yankee 5757L, west ramp, VFR, 4,500 to Raleigh.” After the tower gives me permission, I had better respond confidently, “Taxi to Runway 18C/36C, Yankee 5757L,” because this response assures them that I will be on the right runway and not running into other planes.

As the school leader, you make the calls about everything. If you are unsure in your call, you confuse everyone. Brené Brown takes that one step further by saying “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” When your people don’t know what they are supposed to do, they will default to what they know how to do and are comfortable doing. This leads to a chaotic school environment.

Decide where you are going and the landmarks that you’ll use so that you, your team, and stakeholders know that you’re making progress. Just like any good pilot, you lead and you listen at the same time. Are there rumbles in the distance? Possible thunderstorms or attitudes that could delay or re-route your plan? Decide beforehand how you’ll manage the dig-in-their-heels stalwarts dedicated to the old plan. Anyone who isn’t following the plan with fidelity must be addressed. If you don’t, then you’re choosing to take yourself off-course.

Multi-Tasking: Be the smooth operator.

In the sky, it is easy to get mesmerized by the beauty of an azure sky or a captivating skyline, but you can’t concentrate on the scenery because it gets in the way of monitoring. As a pilot, you must be able to multi-task. You must monitor the gauges, look for landmarks, watch your speed, and check the weather. The engine could fail, or a storm could form at any moment. The sooner you realize that emergencies are happening, the better you can respond. That only happens with multi-tasking.

As a school leader, you are constantly multi-tasking. While you’re picking up trash, you’re modeling for others how you want them to behave. When you co-teach in a classroom, you are not only teaching a lesson, you are modeling a professional partnership for students and demonstrating how much you care about your relationship with that teacher. The same is true when you are on your phone during an observation. You are sending a message via text, and you are sending a negative message to the teacher you’re observing and to the students who can see what you’re doing. School leaders are being watched, so make sure that what you are doing gives you a good bang for your buck.

Time Management: Make the most of the time you have.

Being a school leader is the most interrupted job on the planet. Because people are involved, it is easy to get upset by this, but that response won’t help you serve your students any better. Think about it as you would an engine failure. A part wore out, or a spark plug misfired. In either case, it’s nobody’s fault. It is considered normal wear and tear that must be fixed.

When a child is brought to your office for the fifth time in two weeks, it would be easy to get mad and list out all of the things that you aren’t able to do because of “that” child, but “that” child is why you are there. What can you do to meet his needs? Like the engine or that spark plug, he needs your attention or the whole school machine could go down. You don’t have to be the one delivering the services; no, you just have to make sure those services are available and monitor his trajectory.

Problem-Solving: Use the resources you have or create the ones you need.

Every flight requires planning and checking and then some more planning and more checking. Nobody just wings it if they want to have a long flying career. Since lives are at stake, pilots are expected to inspect the plane, the weather conditions, and their own physical and mental health before each and every flight.

School leadership is the same way. You plan for everything that you can plan for so when the unexpected arises, you are ready. A child vomits in the classroom? No problem. The room is equipped with Smelleze Absorbent Granules. You sprinkle it on and it gets swept up. The child is escorted to the nurse’s office by the teacher assistant. You’ve trained your staff in how to respond because we all know vomit happens in school.

There will always be emergencies. The curriculum will arrive late, or money for professional development will be used for new health protocols. To what resources do you have access that could help? A university connection? When I opened a charter school and needed experts, people offered to introduce me to researchers, and I took them up on the introduction. This led to research assistance, national coverage of our program in SHAPE magazine, and play therapy and guidance counselor interns for the entire school year. When people offer to help, let them.

This is also when you MacGyver the situation and ask a teacher to learn the new curriculum and teach a workshop to her peers. It just might be the opportunity she needs to stretch herself and be in a leadership conversation. She’ll also model for others how leaders are developed at your school.

Adaptability: Frustration is a choice; success is a result.

No matter how well a pilot plans, the flight doesn’t always go as planned. Monitoring the plan is just as important as the plan itself. Pilots and school leaders both have to be adaptable. When I flew my first solo flight, I couldn’t just rely on what I had written down as my flight plan. I had to look out my window to make sure the weather was cooperating and that the visibility was good. Monitoring these changes throughout the flight is essential to the success of the flight. There’s no room for self-doubt or what-if’s. Planes don’t respond well to jerky piloting, and neither do staff, students, or stakeholders.

Piloting a school is very similar to piloting a flight plan. You make a plan, check the weather, and you engage your plan. In a plane, you quite literally push the throttle to get the machine moving. In a school, the raving supporters are your throttle. Go to these people first when you have a new idea. Be firm with the goal, but flexible with the tactics. What does it matter if you fly by the sea or by the mountains as long as you get to your destination? Make the destination clear too. Is it Atlantic City or Las Vegas? Disneyworld or Disneyland? The Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls? Paint a picture of what’s possible for your team. Then lead them in a discussion to create the language that will be used for your, now their, plan.

Lead your school as a pilot directs her plane, and you will not only have a bump-free landing, you’ll have a school full of happy and achieving students, teachers, and stakeholders.

This blog was written by Katy Ridnouer, M.Ed: Grant Writer, Virtual Assistant Principal, and School Start-Up Specialist with KLR Partners.

If Katy can assist you to reach your goals,

please schedule a call at,

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