Four Things Becoming a Pilot Taught Me About Coaching

Have you ever wanted to learn to fly? Who wouldn’t want to enjoy a bird’s eye view of San Francisco or have a beautiful view of rush hour traffic as you speed over packed highways. Every year, I set a goal for myself to learn or do something new in the spirit of continuous learning. I think we all should. After all, shouldn’t we coaches have a thirst for knowledge?

Usually, my goals are professional in nature, but I decided to make an exception, and I’m glad I did. Working toward my private pilot’s license has taught me a lot about myself and my craft, and today I thought I’d share some of those lessons.

Certificated Not Certified

On a wall in our school, there’s a white board that lists all our Certified Flight Instructors (CFI). My CFI looked at it once and said:

It’s not Certified Flight Instructors; it’s really Certificated Flight Instructors.

The same applies to Certified Scrum Masters. We’re not certified; we’re certificated. Further, those newly minted CSMs aren’t masters; they’re novices. Unfortunately, Certificated Scrum Novice doesn’t quite have the same ring.

Don’t misunderstand. The CSM course is great. I enjoyed it enough that I went twice. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand that a two day course in a sterile training environment teaches us enough to be informed. It’s learning from our mistakes and our experiences that makes us useful. After all, Scrum is easy. People are hard.

Complexity Grows Exponentially

Before I began, I assumed learning to fly wasn’t much different than driving. After all, we’re simply adding a vertical component, right? How hard could adding one new dimension to something I’ve been doing for over 20 years? As with so many things, it’s not that simple. With this new dimension:

  • It wasn’t just pitch by forward or back pressure on the yoke but yaw as well. Imagine turning right, pulling back, and pressing a foot pedal all in proper sequence and with proper pressure simultaneously while talking on the radio, ensuring a proper bank, and maintaining a constant speed.
  • What happens if I get lost? I can’t just pull over and figure it out. Instead, I must maintain my altitude, make use of whatever equipment available in the plane, ensure to keep my eyes outside the cockpit for traffic, all while trying to figure out where I’m at.
  • There’s no roads so how do I know where and how to fly when I’m near an airport where there’s lots of other traffic? And at what altitude? Hell! When do I start descending to ensure I’m at the right altitude, at what power setting, and at what speed so I don’t put myself and others in danger?
Cockpit of a Cessna 172
The cockpit of a Cessna 172

Fear Trumps Knowledge

At some point in every student pilot’s training, the CFI steps out of the plane and asks the student to take off and land without him. It’s frightening. I still remember the first time I took off on my own, muttering, “There’s only one way I’m getting back on the ground now, I guess.” And even after dozens of take offs and landings on my own, I continued to surprised myself as I landed safely each and every time.

There’s a fundamental difference between knowing how to do something and believing we know how to do something.

It took me months to move past this fear, and I’m certain this fear impacted the rate of which I learned. I worried that even my smallest mistake would lead to disaster, and it affected my flying. Oftentimes, I would do what felt safest even if it wasn’t quite the technique I was taught.

For example, when a pilot flares the plane just before landing, he loses sight of the runway over the nose for a moment just before touching down. As I worked through this fear, many of my flares were anemic, and an improper flare could put undue stress on the nose wheel upon landing. My solo time helped me gain confidence and dampen the fear while future lessons with my CFI reminded me the importance of proper technique.

As coaches, we must remember not to hover. On occasion, we should purposefully be unavailable to provide the team the opportunity to navigate challenges on their own. Learning may be slower in such circumstances, but the confidence and experience it provides the team is well worth it.

First, ensure they’re prepared. Second, ensure the reward outweighs the risk. Third, ensure we follow up and talk to them about it on the other side.

Patience And Repetition Is Key

I can hear my CFI now:

  • Right rudder, right rudder (when I didn’t accounting for yaw)
  • Look a little, fly a little (when I’m at cruise and looking at my sectional for information)
  • Stop chasing the air speed (when I’m preoccupied with an instrument–data–instead of looking outside the cockpit for visual cues)

I’ve heard those and many others a thousand times. Literally. Even when my CFI’s not in the plane, I hear them. Just before he says them, I often say them first. Yet, I still don’t always do the right thing. Why? Because there’s so much to pay attention to and so much to do. There’s so many elements screaming for my attention, and at times, it’s easy to get behind on the workload or improperly prioritize my attention.

However, each time my CFI mentions them, it’s always with patience and without judgement, and we should behave the same. Our teams are overwhelmed with noise so help them find the signal. The right thing to do may be obvious to us as an expert, but they don’t benefit from our wealth of experience so be patient. Be kind.

It’s easy to forget this when we’re not a student ourselves so maybe it’s time you become one again. Perhaps it’s time to look into becoming a pilot. If not that, then find something that keeps you humble.

Special thanks to my fellow LinkedIn pilots for all the great conversation and advice as I’ve been working on my license. Armen, you’re awesome, and we’re glad we have you around to help organize our small group.

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