I have the controls

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Tim Zacharias
  • 40th Helicopter Squadron, Commander
"I have the controls!"

I've used this phrase hundreds of times over my 15 years as an instructor pilot, many times as my life was flashing before my eyes.

But as the years have passed, I've found myself using it less often. The quality of pilots hasn't changed, but my ability to provide inputs and guidance instead of taking controls has improved dramatically.

When instructing, I've learned that I don't need perfection in all areas and that often times the best way for a pilot to learn is to actually make the mistake. This takes faith and willingness to accept some risk, but has to be done. I never learned well by strictly listening to others. I almost always preferred to be on the controls, making the inputs and dealing with the results of my decisions.

As I found myself in other leadership roles, I realized the awesome responsibility of instructing applied outside the aircraft as much as it did in the cockpit. Developing leaders runs tightly parallel to developing pilots. We want our leaders to grow in their skill level, judgment, decisiveness and accountability. To develop these traits, we have to take the time and the risks to allow them to stay on the controls and make decisions.

There are times when we can't allow a mistake and perfection is the only acceptable answer, but this has to be an extraordinary circumstance. As leaders, we have to identify these uncommon situations and step in to take the controls before we allow a mistake to occur. The rest of the time, we need to let those working around us have the controls and responsibility to make decisions at the lowest level possible. Instructor pilots, who come on the controls at every hint of risk or failure, never allow their students to develop. They fail their students by not allowing them to fail.

As leaders, we have to develop a culture in our organizations that sets people up to learn and grow as they progress in their careers. They need to know that we trust in their judgment and give them the authority to make key mission-related decisions, even though we know they will make mistakes. I recently read a great article about organizational error culture that focused heavily on the impact of how leaders in organizations reacted to mistakes.

There were two cultures identified: error aversion and error management. Error aversion focused on the prevention of all errors and led to a culture that did not promote learning from mistakes; it unfortunately encouraged people to hide errors to prevent from being caught. Error management, on the other hand, acknowledged that errors will happen and that we have to identify them openly, discuss them and then learn from their results.

The researchers determined in their study that organizations focused on managing errors instead of eliminating them may experience more short term failures or losses. However, over the long term, building a culture that promotes managing and learning from mistakes reaps far greater success and productivity. The importance of developing leaders demands we accept this level of risk and failure.

The most critical aspect of most instruction flights is not the actual flying, but the time spent during debrief. Students are expected to critique their own performance and then instructors help review the how and why of the errors and focus on minimizing the chance of them reoccurring. The goal is professional growth on every sortie. Taking the time to debrief and provide feedback to developing leaders is equally as important. Providing feedback ensures people understand and learn from their mistakes and allows us to validate that making a mistake was not the end of the world.

I've found myself a lot more effective instructing in the aircraft and developing leaders on the ground when I have the courage to back off and provide more room for them to operate. It was difficult for me to expand my comfort zone, as I don't want to ding an aircraft, miss a suspense, or see a mission struggle. However, it was amazing to see how quickly both pilots and leaders gained confidence, skill and judgment when I stopped saying, "I have the controls," and instead said, "You've got the aircraft!"