Lessons From a Pilot Turned Leadership Coach
On a winning team? Shake it up!
by Tim Leberecht
Summer travel, travel from hell. I just flew with United Airlines from Berlin, Germany, to Atlanta, Georgia, and it took me exactly 24 hours door to door, due to some weather-related delay during my stopover in New York. My journey was not helped by the notorious Great Resignation-caused staff shortage in the industry. When we finally got ready for the last leg at Newark airport, eight hours behind schedule, three of which were spent aboard a locked aircraft on the tarmac, the pilot had to abort the take-off due to a technical issue. I was so tired, frustrated, and helpless that I could barely hold it together.
The pilot, however, was the epitome of composure, a formidable professional. He stayed calm throughout the hassle, shared all information honestly and timely, and eventually left the flight deck to step in front of the disgruntled passengers to address them face to face and apologize.
The pilot truly led by example, and his classy demeanor set the tone and ensured that no one snapped. It reminded me of the grueling demands of his profession and the beauty of “grace under pressure.”
What can other professionals learn from his examplet?
I had the great pleasure of speaking with Thierry Beyeler ,who is uniquely positioned to reflect on this question. For more than ten years, Beyeler was a pilot with Swiss International Air Lines, for which he flew various aircraft. He then worked as a pilot instructor. Most recently, he changed careers and industries, joining a global bank to help shape its new leadership development initiatives.
I spoke to Beyeler about how his experience as a pilot helped him settle into his role in the corporate environment, what helps him in crisis situations, and how purpose, well-being, and emotional intelligence take the stage in both worlds today.
He told me that for him “flying is a bit like eating chocolate. I loved every flight. However, when you have 16 flights in four days—which is more or less the maximum on the short haul—then that’s too much chocolate! All in all, getting to fly airplanes around the world is still a dream job, in small doses.”
He believes that “training is the best thing you can do to manage abnormal situations. As Murphy said, ‘What can go wrong will go wrong,’ so think about it and try to prepare mentally. One thing I have always told my students is to take deep breaths. Breathe into your feet, and stay calm. That’s the first step in regaining control of your body; knowing how to breathe.”
Mindfulness, yoga, and the importance of discomfort
That is why mindfulness or yoga routines are now becoming an integral part of pilot training. Beyeler told me that “well-being and self-reflection are being increasingly recognized as essential. Mental strength of huge importance for pilots.”
Interestingly, there is one aspect of routine that the aviation industry seeks to mitigate: For every flight, pilots are with a different copilot and crew.
Beyeler explains why: “There are a lot of advantages of developing a routine with one team, like having a good atmosphere, having good discussions, and so on. But why do airlines not want that? Because if you feel too comfortable, there is the possibility that you don’t intervene, you won’t speak up and tell the other pilot what they are doing wrong. That’s one of the most important elements of being a pilot, and of having two pilots in the cockpit—having the four-eyes principle and telling the other one if they are doing something wrong. What’s the plan? What’s the shared situational awareness? If you know each other too well, it might make you less alert.”
The human factor
Alert is also why flights are not going to fully automated any time soon, Beyeler suggests: “Apparently, 80 percent of people are actually scared of flying, so as long as we have human passengers, we need to have humans guiding that machine. Moreover, we often overestimate the technical possibilities of aircraft. Yes, an airplane is able to land automatically, but it’s very difficult and complicated. Automated take-off is not possible at the moment; of course, it might be in the future, but the question is, do we want that?
“As with cars. It’s a very high-risk environment, it’s not like riding a bike! If there are minor errors, it could have fatal consequences. There was an incident a few months ago, actually, where most of the plane was pushed down by the system shortly after take-off. If the pilot hadn’t intervened, 250 or so people could have died. Humans intervene with technical systems to solve problems countless times a day, and it would be dangerous to forget that.”
For Beyeler, all of this connects to the human factor: “In aviation, in finance, and many other industries, things are changing. Human factors are becoming much more present and important. We now talk about mental strength, about well-being, about developing a human-centered culture for employees. The younger generations want to have meaningful work. Purpose, well-being, and emotional intelligence—going forward you will not be able to operate without them.”
This article was published on Psychology Today.