I can’t say I’ve ever considered how my job as a marketing manager compares to being a fighter pilot. It seems like such a different world, with different challenges and certainly different skill sets. Yet, after hearing Carey Lohernz, the U.S. Navy’s first female F-14 fighter pilot speak recently at FMI Future Leaders, there are more similarities that I would have imagined. Whether the balance of responsibilities, dependence on teamwork, perseverance in the face of challenges or the way one deals with failure, many of Lohrenz’s points were directly applicable to almost any position.
Lest the audience be under the impression that being a fighter pilot was only about flying $45M fighter jets, Lohernz first illuminated the vast responsibilities of a fighter pilot, the majority of which had nothing to do with actually flying. Running 250-300 person squadrons and $1B departments and having to transition among different roles while not in the air are the most relatable responsibilities. Then come the in-air complications: three different radio feeds giving sometimes only partially complete information, the feeling of an elephant sitting in one’s lap due to gravitational forces, rapid decisions while operating in a three-dimensional battlefield in space. The mental and physical challenges add up to the military recognizing only 80% success as good enough. This was surprising to me, but as Lohernz explained, if we are paralyzed by the expectation of perfection, by the time we act, it is too late. Fighter pilots, and those of us in business, must have a bias to act, which also means we must be willing to fail at least 20% of the time.
Part of what makes individual failure possible is the idea that everyone is working toward the same goal. On the aircraft carrier, Lohernz pointed out that while everyone had their own challenges to overcome, the entire mission was to safely launch and recover planes. Everyone, no matter their tasks in that cycle, had the same end goal. For the Navy, this task must be done with personnel whose average age is 19.5, and with 50% of the crews turning over every 9 months. As Lohrenz explained, this means everyone has to know why the matter and what they contribute to the team. This demands leadership and catalysts who can align goals quickly and get the team where they need to go faster without compromising quality. It also demands leaders who can focus on what is ahead, identifying three to five top priorities and moving ahead with those as to not be an inch deep and a mile wide in multiple areas. Lohrenz showed a video of a fighter pilot controlling an jet while in air. One of the things she pointed out in the video was that the pilot often congratulated himself on his own successes. This great attitude, an attitude of excellence, exhibited his confidence, willingness to be bold, and comfort with taking risks.
When Lohrenz went into the military, she went into a program with the highest attrition rates under a leader who didn’t believe women should be in the military. No female had ever graduated the program under his tutelage, a fact that only fueled Lohrenz’s desire to achieve. Even when her leaders told her she could choose to take another path due to the law against women on the front lines, Lohrenz held out, following her dream and focused on her end goal. This adversity helped her challenge herself even further. Instead of taking the options she was given, she asked for what she wanted, which was to stay where she was and wait for the law against women in combat to be lifted. This tenacity paid off. The message: Have the courage to step in, even when people are saying “This isn’t how we do it”.
Yet sometimes, even when we have the desire and the courage, fear takes over. Drowning isn’t a common concern of potential Naval aviators initially, but the understanding that flights take part mostly over water becomes a reality quickly. Lohrenz told stories of the severe challenges of water training, circumstances that push potential aviators to the brink, making them want to jump back into water that caused them torture. Lohrenz’s takeaway from this discomfort was the understanding that we all, even Naval aviators, feel fear, it is what we do after we feel it that matters. The fear of failure is paralyzing, but it will happen and it is what you do with it that defines you and teaches you what you’re good at. The most important aspect is feeling the fear and doing it anyway; becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable.
There’s no doubt that on the surface Naval aviation is vastly different than the world of grocery that I’m in everyday, but Lohrenz did a fantastic job of relating her experiences and what she’s learned along the way to the core facets of not only work, but also life. Her tenacity and discipline in the face of challenges laid before her made her dynamic and engaging and her reminders of: Be resilient. Stay agile. Be Brave, Take Risks, Nothing Beats Experience give her message resonance.