Adapting Leadership Style

One of the gratifying things about working with CEOs who are developing their skills is to watch how they become stronger and more flexible as their problem solving becomes more sophisticated and situational. This is leadership style and voice.

Each successful leader will try out several leadership styles and a genuine voice to advance that style. We have talked about that before.

What is also important is to know that there are multiple ways to solve problems in the course of translating leadership goals into reality.

There are different methodologies based on the current — instant in time current — situation. These different methodologies require a CEO to think carefully about style and voice.

Allow me to use a flying analogy.

When you learn to fly an airplane, one of the critical skills is landing the plane. Pilots define a “good landing” as one that you can walk away from, but that is grossly oversimplistic.

I fly a Bonanza. It is a heavy plane (4,024 lbs fully loaded gross weight, 2,195 lbs empty, 114 gallons of fuel with tip tanks) as single engine planes go. Part of the heaviness is because its manufacturer uses subassemblies (e.g. landing gear) from larger planes because they want to use these subassemblies in multiple planes for cost reasons.

The Bonanza will scoot you along at approximately 172 knots to which you will add or subtract the wind’s impact. [I once caught a 225 knot tailwind at 11,000′ altitude one wintry evening flying from Georgetown, Texas to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Air traffic control kept asking me what kind of a plane I was because it was way too fast to be a Bonanza.]

It is a very capable instrument platform and with the addition of tip tanks is a cross country flyer limited only by the pilot’s bladder. It is a slick plane and a second’s inattention can wreak havoc. OTOH, it has a delightful auto pilot and two GPS so it can literally fly itself.

I have landed that plane approximately 3,000 times and have walked away from all of them, but I have learned to land it in three slightly different ways.

Hanging the plane on the prop/short field landing

Normal landing

Dead stick technique

Hanging the plane on the prop

This technique finds the pilot approaching the airport with a high level of power. You will be flying at approximately 120 knots with the first notch (two notches of flaps on a Bonanza) of flaps engaged. You lower your landing gear when you enter the base leg (I usually lower the gear when I am abeam the runway numbers before I turn from downwind to base. This keeps the work load lower.). The plane’s engine will be fighting the drag from the flaps and the landing gear.

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As you turn from the base leg of the landing pattern to the final approach leg, you will be flying at a approximately 100-110 knots. The single most important thing you will ever do is to be FAST on your transition from base leg to final approach. When you turn, you will turn slow and shallow because a plane loses lift when it turns. If you lose enough lift, your plane stops flying. So, you keep your speed up.

You “hang the plane on the prop” meaning you depend on the plane’s power to allow you to descend to the runway altitude. This is the technique you must master to make short field landings. You may land a few knots slower than a normal landing.

You will not engage the second notch of flaps. You will, essentially, fly the plane onto the runway because the second notch of flaps allows a plane to make a steeper descent. You fly a shallower approach and do not need that high rate of descent.

Since the plane’s power is keeping it aflight, the second you kill the throttle, the plane will land. Since power was providing all of the lift, the plane will sit down quick and slow down immediately. You stand on the brakes and the plane stops. This is why you use this technique for short field landings. In practice, I could land a Bonanza within less than 1,000 feet of runway.

The downside to this technique is if you have any engine problems, you are on the ground quick.

Normal landing

This is what your instructor will initially teach you. You enter the landing pattern in a certain way and make the same transition from the downwind leg to the base leg to the final approach leg.

You will be descending at 500 FPM, you will have both notches of flaps out (which allows for a steeper descent) and you will have the gear out. [Pro tip: Always have the gear out when landing.]

You will watch your glide slope and if you get low, you will throttle up; if you are high, you will throttle back and gently raise the nose.

When you cross the numbers — the runway numbers at the end of every runway — you will be at 85 knots. Experienced pilots will cross as low as 70-75 knots, but I do not recommend that.

When you are over the runway, you will begin to rotate the aircraft while gently reducing power. When you are a foot off the runway, you will kill the power, hold the plane steady and bleed off the energy until your wheels make a satisfying chirp. Then, you tap the brakes and taxi to wherever you are going.

The big problem with this technique is that you are subject to the impact of any crosswind for as long as you are floating waiting for the plane to stop flying. No crosswind? No problem? Big crosswind? You have to have better pilot skills. Aircraft controls lose “authority” at low speed.

Dead stick

When you make a dead stick landing, you will stay a little higher on final approach than the other two techniques. You are going to barter altitude for speed. Wherein the short field (hanging the plane on the prop) approach uses a lot of power, the dead stick approach is going to make power meaningless.

You turn to final a little high, both notches of flaps deployed (this allows you to make a steeper approach), and the gear hanging out. You will immediately adjust for any cross wind by stomping on the rudder and dipping the upwind wing. It is an odd feeling to be crabbing across the sky, but you get used to it.

[Pro tip: The impact of the crosswind diminishes a bit when you encounter the “friction” of the planet. If you are landing where there are trees or buildings along the runway, the crosswind may suddenly disappear at fifty feet. This does not happen in Lubbock, Texas where there is nothing near the runway and there is always a stout crosswind.

Once aligned with the runway, you are going to lower the power to a minimal level relying on the trade of altitude for speed to keep you flying. The obvious benefit is that if the engine quits, you are still good to land.

This is also a technique one might use if there is a bit of a crosswind.

As you cross the numbers, you may be a little slower. You immediately rotate the plane to fly above the runway. The plane begins to sink — no power — and you keep the nose on the other end of the runway. The plane sits down with a distinct thump — you call this a Navy landing because pilots have to catch a wire on an aircraft carrier and you have to sit the plane down quick. It is a definitive thump. It is not a satisfying chirp.

Of the three techniques, the dead stick is the one pilots struggle most with. It does not have the power control of a prop landing and it requires a better feel than a normal landing. It is a hard landing, but therein lies its beauty — it is a certain landing. Once that plane touches the runway, it is never coming off unless you apply power and lots of power.

When flying long cross country flights, I would always vary the landing types for training purposes. My favorite was the dead stick approach.

One small thing — really good pilots always pick a targeted point at which to land. It is hard to land a plane on a distinct spot, but it sharpens your skills as you do.

The analogy I want you to grasp is that solving a problem — leading an organization, team, company — may have multiple solutions based on that instant in time. In the early days of a startup, you may make decisions differently than you do three years later. The difference is experience. You get better at the CEOing business.

As the CEO, you will also make decisions differently based on your own skills. Instructors first teach pilot students how to land a plane normally, then the short field technique, and then the dead stick approach.

Pilots once trained, hone their skills and develop a technique with which they are more comfortable. Hopefully, it works every time.

One of the reasons I liked the dead stick approach was I considered it the safest if I had an engine outage in the airport area. It gave me a few seconds more to react. I also liked it for crosswind landings because it got me on the ground with certainty thereby cheating the crosswind of an opportunity to mess with me while I floated above the runway.

As a CEO, I hope for you to develop multiple ways to accomplish the same thing. An example, is communicating the company’s annual plan to the management team (who participated in its creation). I have seen this done successfully in several ways. Amongst experienced companies and CEOs, the best technique I have seen is an off site meeting — even if it’s at a local hotel conference room — in which the annual plan is the only topic.

One company and CEO with whom I worked made this into a mystical, magical encounter. It took him a few years to develop the skills, the confidence, but when he did – BOOM! It worked perfectly.

Take a second and think about how you are running your business. Where do you find yourself employing multiple methods to accomplish the same outcome? Are the alternatives based on real environmental considerations? Like landing a plane? Walk away from all your landings, but know why.

Be thoughtful.

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Great week ahead. Here’s me giving Bo a few pointers on his dead stick technique.