To see things in a new way, we must rise above the fray.
Approaching the Hughes 269C helicopter, the first thing I notice are the doors—there aren’t any. “Nope, no doors,” explains Chris, my helicopter flight instructor. “Gets too hot in there.” It’s amazing how much more closely you pay attention to the seat belt instructions when the aircraft you’re about to go up in has no doors. After completing a thorough pre-flight checklist of some 60 items, including a review of the helicopter’s nose area, cabin, engine, main rotor system, tail boom, and tail rotor, we slip into the only two seats in the helicopter. Chris walks us through another review, this one being the 64 items on the pre-takeoff checklist and we’re ready to go.
As we elevate into the clear blue sky, I’m immediately struck by how different things look from this vantage point, even though we’re only about 500 feet up. I see patterns of traffic on the roads and the outlines of towns bumping up against one another. I see features of buildings I’ve not seen from this perspective. I see homes on 10- and 20-acre parcels of land, too secluded to see from the ground. Now, I see it all.
Then Chris says, “Ok, your turn to fly this thing.” He reminds me how the cyclic stick—used to tilt the main rotor disc by changing the pitch angle of the rotor blades on top of the chopper—should be treated like a martini. Any big, jerky moves of the martini glass and your drink will spill. It’s the same concept with the cyclic. It should be moved slightly and smoothly, as the tilting of the rotor disc in a particular direction results in the helicopter moving in that direction. At the same time, my feet are on the tail rotor pedals, which control the smaller blades at the back of the helicopter. Since we’re in a hovering position, the tail rotor pedals are controlling the direction of the nose of the helicopter. I’m checking the flight instruments inside the helicopter and scanning the air space around us for other aircraft, buildings, and electrical lines.
“You know you just took us up 100 feet?” Chris asks.
“Uh, no,” I answer, as a 20-knot wind blows through the open cabin. I feel the helicopter swaying and realize I just took us up another 100 feet. Anxiety growing and confidence shrinking, I say, “Maybe you should take the controls back.”
“Sure,” says Chris, smiling as he notices my left hand clinging to the underside of the seat as we bank right, my body tilting towards the opening where the door should be. I’m staring at the countryside below, and thinking, “Thank God I got the seatbelt part right.” My helicopter piloting lesson had come to an end.
What I took away from the lesson is that it requires great knowledge, preparation, and skill to capably fly a helicopter. I obviously didn’t have these things, but my instructor did. The mastery to operate multiple controls simultaneously, monitor the flight instruments (internal conditions), assess the air space (external conditions), and devise an intelligent flight plan all contribute to a successful journey. And so it is with leading a business. A truly strategic leader possesses the mastery to manage multiple initiatives simultaneously, monitor the internal conditions of the business (e.g., people, processes, culture, etc.), assess the external conditions (e.g., market trends, customer needs, competitive landscape, etc.), and design a strategic action plan to achieve the goals and objectives. In both cases, elevation is required.
To elevate means to lift up, or to raise to a higher rank or intellectual level.1 A helicopter is arguably the most precise, agile vehicle for physically raising a person up to considerable heights. Unlike fixed- wing aircraft (planes), helicopters are able to hover in one position for extended periods of time, ranging from a few feet above the ground to more than 36,000 feet high. One of the biggest challenges I continually hear from CEOs and talent management leaders is, “We need to elevate our manager’s thinking.” In essence, they’re saying that managers need to be able to quickly elevate their thinking from down in the tactical weeds of day-to-day operations to a higher level. At this higher level, they can expand their perspective to understand how the core foundational elements of their business fit together and provide superior value to customers. The challenge of taking time to elevate one’s thinking is supported by an Economist Intelligence Unit survey in which 64 percent of managers in bottom-performing companies cited the challenge: “We are too busy fighting the daily battles to step back.”2
A helicopter has the agility to navigate within congested areas, such as skyscraper-filled cities, and also get to remote areas not accessible by any other means, such as mountaintops, giving them unmatched versatility. This versatility translates into a variety of functions ranging from emergency medical transport to aerial attacks by military forces. As author James Chiles wrote, “Of all birds, winged mammals and insects, very few have mastered the skill of pausing in midair and going backward as well as forward, so anything capable of such flight is a rare beast.”3 Business leaders also require agility—mental agility. Mental agility enables leaders to think clearly through the congestion of information—which comes in the form of e-mails, reports, and meetings—to isolate the trade-offs and decisions that will make or break their success. In both cases, a fair amount of risk is assumed.