Flight Lessons: Preparing Your Leaders for Success

Are you giving your teammates flight lessons?

As leaders, the best indicator of our success is the success of those we are responsible for.  Whether it is a child, a teammate, or co-worker, when you invest time and energy in preparing them to succeed on their own, you are fulfilling one of the highest callings of leadership.  Think of it as flight lessons for future leaders.

Flight Lessons

From Sea to Shining Sea

Thirty-four summers ago my parents kissed me and my brother good bye at the airport in Washington, D.C.  He was 20, I was 18, and we were excited about our first flight alone, and for the adventure that was to follow.  With only a vague idea of what the days ahead would bring, we just knew that we were anxious to get started.

A few hours later, the plane landed in Portland, Oregon.  At baggage claim, we grabbed two giant cardboard boxes and dragged them outside into the heat.  There, on the sidewalk near the bustling cars and honking cabs, we opened up the cartons, pulled out the contents, and assembled our bicycles.

It was unexpectedly hot.  I remember the sweat dripping down my face as we worked to straighten handlebars, thread pedals, and attach bags.  But we were happy in the heat; we embraced this first of many challenges.  It meant that we had finally begun a bicycle trip that would take us through 14 states, across three mountain ranges, and over 4,913 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic.

Can You Hear Me?

It was 1983:  we had no phone, didn’t carry credit cards or GPS.  The internet had not been invented yet, so there were no daily electronic updates or blog posts for people to follow.  For a week at a time, in between collect calls on Sunday nights, all my parents would know is that we were out there somewhere, making our way across the country.

We camped as we went, made friends along the way, reveled in the adventure of it all, and did our best to take the adversity in stride.

Some days were great:  the tailwind that pushed us across half of South Dakota in a single day; the exhilarating high speed 12 mile down-hill run in the Rockies; the nice gestures from friendly people.

Other days were tougher – getting separated in the Coast Range, derailleur malfunctions on the Continental Divide, the fourth flat tire in a row on a wickedly hot day near Johnson City, Tennessee.

Solving Problems

When problems arose, often we knew exactly what to do – we had done shorter tours, had practiced with our gear, increased our fitness and decreased the load we carried.  Dad had been with us on those early trips, helping, guiding, and encouraging.

Some times we didn’t know what to do.  We had to improvise, figure it out as we went: a new tent pole after a damaging storm, a different route, a stealthy camp site off the side of a country road.   Our father’s personal example, calmness in adversity, and positive attitude imprinted on us how to solve problems and keep going.

Personal example is the most effective teacher. Click To Tweet

Sixty-four days after starting, we made it back home.  It was a life-defining experience that gave us confidence in ourselves, a faith in the general goodness of people, and appreciation for this amazing world we live in.  We learned that we could dream big, and then get there by setting and achieving small daily goals.

My folks couldn’t be out there with us, but they had given us the best flight lessons they could.  They knew we were as prepared as we could be, and they had the faith and courage to let us go.

Shoe on the Other Foot

As I write this, my own son, 20 years old, is high in the air on the far side of the globe.  My phone is close at hand as I wait for word of his arrival on a distant continent.  He’s traveling alone to a place he’s never been to work with people he’s never met.  He’ll be out there for several months.

It’s a familiar scenario, but now the shoe is on the other foot.

He’s excited to be going, and has been preparing for months.  He has the skills and the drive and the knowledge he needs.  We’ve been on countless outings, and even a couple short trips to other countries together.  We’ve talked over contingencies, what-if plans, communications strategies.

Ready For Flight

The night before he departed, we went over his packing list – there was nothing I could think of that he hadn’t already thought about himself.  He’s had his flight lessons.  He was ready.

Unlike my parents, we have the advantage of far better communications than the occasional collect telephone call from a phone booth in a strange city.  He’ll be able to text, email, call, Skype, and blog about his experience.  That’s great; in a sense, that should make it easier on me than it was for my parents, right?

But there was still that moment of release – when he walked through security, boarded the plane by himself and headed out on his own.  He was anxious to get started.  We were a little anxious, too.

We know there will be mistakes, missteps, and stubbed toes.  He’ll have his portion of flat tires on hot days near Johnson City.  But it also boggles the mind the kinds of miles he’ll be able to cover, the mountains of experience he will gain, the lessons he will come away with by dreaming big, then going after it, one day at a time.

Dream big, then go after it one day at a time. Click To Tweet

Flight Lessons for Leaders – The Takeaway

Our success as leaders is directly tied to the future success of those we have been entrusted to coach, develop, and mentor.  Like good parents, our job is to give our teammates the best possible flight lessons we can.

As a leader, you succeed when they succeed. Click To Tweet

Set a positive example, make them a part of the leadership process, teach them all that you can – not just what to do, but how to think.  Then give them a chance to fly.

With so much invested in them, it’s natural to want to be there every step of the way, fix things when they go wrong, protect them from the risks you know are out there.

But there comes a moment when the bird has to step out of the nest.  It’s a leap of faith for everyone.  Leading up to that moment, you do all that you can to show them the way and prepare them for the road ahead.

As my brother and I flew west to begin our cross-country bicycling adventure all those years ago, my parents clearly recognized that the moment had come.  And like good leaders, they had done their best to make sure we were ready.

Soon, I hope, my phone will buzz with word that my son’s plane has landed on a strange continent and that his own adventure has begun.  He’s going to do great.

I’m just glad I don’t have to wait a week for a collect phone call!

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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