Leadership Essentials


Leadershipand professionalism– these words are commonly used throughout industries across all sectors. The topic of leadership will continually develop throughout your aviation career as each of us cultivates our own definition and set of standards that exemplify these qualities. Here, I would like to provide some insight into a few of the qualities that are common to great professionals who excel in leadership roles.

In my professional aviation career, as both a new hire and captain, I have gone through multiple ground school courses in which leadership and professionalism were discussed thoroughly. But my first encounter with leadership and professionalism was in a Crew Resource Management (CRM) course in college. The instructor had us post to our class forum our thoughts on what makes a good teacher, supervisor or leader. Together as a class, we came up with a list of the qualities. We found that those who are good leaders and professionals are those who make themselves approachable, who are good listeners, effective communicators, and those who lead by example. Some leaders are great at displaying all these qualities equally, but most leaders have some that are more evident than others. Without some degree of all however, leadership is lacking.


Being approachable sets the tone for an entire situation (e.g. a four-day trip). When you become a captain, this is a very important attribute. Sometimes frustrations are so apparent that we take it out on others. This can drastically affect leadership effectiveness. When things aren’t going your way, or a situation is out of your control, you cannot let your emotions affect the way you interact with others. Members of the team may have a solution to a problem, but if you are quick to shut them down, or they are afraid to speak to you based upon your body language, you will miss an opportunity to resolve the issue. It doesn’t matter whether you are student, instructor, first officer, or captain, you must be approachable. In aviation, the day-to-day events can be volatile and you must be approachable in those situations. 


An effective leader is also a good listener. Many times, we think of a leader as one who is delegating duties and assigning tasks. More often, good leaders are the ones who listen. If you were an instructor, think of a student who was worried about a maneuver or some aspect of training. In this situation, some instructors would be quick to say the solution is to practice more, but it may be more constructive to dig deeper. Sometimes the solution can be found by asking questions and listening to the answers. Something as simple as asking what you, as the instructor, can do to better breakdown the concept. Being empathic to a student’s feelings can go a long way. 

Because we are in a time of quick upgrades, as a first officer you’ll want to absorb as much as you can in a short span of time. Don’t be afraid to ask your captains questions and be open to critique that will further your knowledge and skill. As a captain, through listening, I learn more on how I can improve. Your team members, dispatchers, maintenance controllers, air traffic controllers, first officers, gate agents, and ramp crews, share vital information to help keep the operation going. Listen before forming an opinion or coming to a conclusion. Drawing a conclusion before hearing the whole story can affect your leadership and create the impression that another’s opinion doesn’t matter. Listening is a building block of developing good leadership since it helps create effective communicators.


Communicating well is an extremely important quality in a leader. I once had a mentor who compared an effective communicator to a conductor of a band. He said, “If nobody knows what sheet of music you are on, nobody will be able to play the song you want.” There is a lot of truth in this statement. When you devise a game plan but no one knows what it is, you can’t expect it to be executed as planned. Sometimes we need to hear the same thing presented differently so it can click. When I was in pilot training, I had a little trouble flying approaches. I tended to over-correct and chase the localizer. The instructor told me, “Make small corrections,” but I kept making the same mistake. Finally, my instructor said, “Make your corrections within either side of your heading bug.” Finally, I had a reference that provided my ah-ha moment. All it took was a clearer way of saying what was considered “small.” A great communicator is clear and concise. As a fellow crew member, let others know what your game plan is to keep them in the loop. The development of these skills is key, especially when you are an airline pilot. Passengers are very appreciative when you keep them informed on what’s happening. Being an effective communicator will help you thrive in your aviation career.

Leading by example

People follow because they accept that what the leader conveys is acceptable. Compliance with rules is obviously important. For pilots, there are clear, set standards such as, FARs, company policies, grooming standards and more. In leadership positions, if we miss the mark on these items, we can’t expect those behind us to hit the target when we have lowered the bar. In some ways, when we cut corners, we likely disappoint those around us because we have the knowledge and experience and know what the implications of noncompliance can be. 

Leadership is like any other skill – there is always room for improvement. Each person will have their own way of displaying their unique qualities of leadership. This list of skills is not comprehensive but just a glimpse into a few that should be integrated into your leadership development. Being approachable allows for others to bring their ideas to invest in your development as a professional. Making yourself a good listener will help you better understand a situation. While having a game plan is imperative, having the ability to communicate it effectively is key. And, leading by example helps set a standard, hopefully one that is high enough to be aspirational. When you hear these characteristics, remember to focus on how you can integrate them into your own professional leadership development. 


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