Reading Time:
Word Count:
Written by Natacha Wilson
Categories All | Personal mastery

Are you leading like a pilot?

What do we mean by leadership styles, and which ones bring the best results? This is a topic I am often asked about when I run workshops. In this Insight, I will be talking about situational leadership. This is the importance of adapting your style to specific situations. I’ll also discuss core leadership traits, skills and mindsets that are key to success.

Do you remember your last flight? Can you picture the pilot?  Different images come to mind for each of us. We often associate pilots with authority and expert skills. We know that they have received extensive training and are qualified in taking us from A to B. We trust them to do so. 

And yet, pilots do not work alone. They work closely with a co-pilot (First officer), crew members and airport staff. Everyone on their ‘team’ knows their roles and responsibilities within a very well-defined goal. 

What can we learn from pilots? How does this apply to you in the context of research and fast growth environments?  

Understanding the weather: data and agility

We often plan and aim to lead for clear weather. We forget that there will be different weather that may alter our course and it often comes as a shock that we land far away from our initial destination.

Pilots and their teams need to anticipate and read just-in time data to help them stay on course. They will inform us when the weather gets rough, and we need to fasten our seat-belt. 

They are good communicators and they develop great agility both in the way they are piloting a state-of-the-art flying machine, their team, and the passengers on board. 

In my workshops with research leaders, we often have discussions about adapting plans in view of unexpected results, challenges in field work or other adverse factors. 

Knowing which data to read and consider is as important as sharing the decision you make with your team. A friend of mine, based in Paris and who works as a Tax consultant, reminded me that you need to develop your technical expertise first and then build your agility and interpersonal skills around it. In any case, both types of skills are needed if you way to stay on track.


Collaboration and trust

In a post-pandemic era, we are still learning how to lead and live in a volatile, ambiguous, uncertain, and complex world (VUCA). This requires agility and adaptability in a face of multiple scenarios and situations. It also requires one key ingredient: trusting your team. 

As a pilot, you rely on everyone in the team to do what they are supposed to do, on time and with efficiency. It is key to the smooth running of the entire journey, from take-off to landing. 

Collaboration and trust come both ways. This reminds me of a recent workshop I facilitated with research leaders from a range of disciplines and fields. The energy and knowledge in the room was incredible and my role as a facilitator was provide a safe space to explore collaboration[6] s. There needs to be a common language and an understanding of the ultimate goal – in this case, developing collaborations to increase the impact of their research on patients and clinicians.

It may seem easier for a pilot as the destination is known in advance, and yet the risks and responsibilities are heightened in this closed environment in the shape of a plane!. The pilot is relying on trust and collaboration from all parties involved and including passengers. 


Calm and control

“This is your captain speaking…” These words may bring back memories of your last flight. 

I have always been impressed by the way pilots communicate with passengers, in a calm manner. They appear to be in control of situations and share information with a natural calm. 

Pilots also have the power to switch to a command approach when there is potential danger, and we are told to fasten our seat belts.

This is situational leadership in a nutshell. We all have a preferred leadership style and yet we also need to switch to the most appropriate style for the given situation. 

During the COVID 19 pandemic, we all witnessed this style to keep employees and the wider population safe. It is also worth mentioning that we can step into a more autocratic style when the situation requires it and keep a calm voice and demeanour. We develop our ability to lead with authority in a calm and thoughtful manner. This is linked to resilience and our ability to manage our emotions and understand how to  influence others for the greater good. 

In research this may involve sharing news of a collaborator leaving a project or being unsuccessful after applying for a grant. We need to stay calm and show the way forward. 

There are additional leadership traits and skills that a pilot demonstrates and some of you may remember the story of “Sully”. Sullenberger is the pilot who, on 15 January 2009, successfully landed his Airbus 320 in the Hudson river, New York, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew after the aircraft struck a flock of birds, putting both engines out of action, shortly after its take-off from LaGuardia airport. Check this article for more  information https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/nov/27/chesley-sullenberger-sully-film-clint-eastwood-tom-hanks-miracle-hudson-river

You can also read Sullenberger’s 2009 memoir, Highest Duty for a more in-depth account of his experience as a leader. [7]


In my next Insight, I will look at what we can learn from Conductors of orchestras. If you like this article and want to find out more about my work, please reach out and book an introductory Zoom call. 



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

About Natacha Wilson

Natacha Wilson, founder of Cambridge Insights, is a learning and development consultant and coach. She creates tailored development programmes, which combine 21st century skills, mindsets, and wisdom, to boost leadership capabilities and nurture innovative cultures. Her mission is to support transformational leaders and  “leaders in the making” increase their postive impact, solve global challenges and create a greater world.

Contact me

You may also be interested in reading the following insights.

Listen to my podcasts

Let’s re-define leadership by listening to my guest speakers, and engage with their leadership journeys, pathways and challenges.

Enjoy beautiful and insightful leadership journeys.

Get in touch and find out how I can help you.

1 + 8 =