Fighter Pilot Brings Lessons in Leadership to AIHce EXP

​By Kay Bechtold

Minneapolis Convention Center (May 20, 2019)—Opening keynoter Carey Lohrenz kicked off AIHce EXP 2019 by sharing lessons learned from her career in the U.S. Navy, where she made history by becoming the first female F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot. Lohrenz has spent the last 15 years helping organizations build high-performing teams, and on Monday morning she spoke with conference attendees about how “focused leadership” can lead to success, especially in fast-paced, dynamic environments.

As a fighter pilot, Lohrenz’s job was to lead her wingmen to a target and return to the aircraft carrier to land her 45-million-dollar plane on a surface that from the air looks to be approximately the size of a postage stamp. She would don about 35 pounds of flight gear before climbing into the cockpit. During takeoff, her plane would go from zero to 200 miles per hour in just under two seconds, reaching speeds of more than 400 miles per hour within a couple of minutes. While in flight, fighter pilots face information overload, Lohrenz explained. They’re simultaneously listening to three radios on different frequencies, trying to cycle through and synthesize information that is often conflicting. And they’re doing it all while experiencing up to eight times the force of gravity. Lohrenz compared the feeling to “trying to make decisions with an elephant sitting in your lap,” and likened each landing to a “controlled car crash” (her F-14 would come to a complete stop on the aircraft carrier in just under 1.2 seconds). The job is mentally and physically challenging, and Lohrenz stresses that fighter pilots can’t do it on their own.

Every aircraft carrier has about 5,000 people on board. On average, personnel are 19 to 19-and-a-half years old. Every nine months, about 50 percent of that population turns over. That means that every 18 months, there’s an entirely new crew trying to get the job done, Lohrenz noted. The turnover presents some challenges, which she explained can be overcome through “focused leadership.”

“Your job, whether you have a title or not, is to clarify the complex,” she said. “[On an aircraft carrier,] all of your decisions should support the safe launching and recovering of airplanes.”

In dangerous environments, Lohrenz said, leaders must have the emotional agility to be able to decide what is most important about the work at specific times. When leaders get pulled in multiple directions, Lohrenz knows it’s overwhelming. She recommends a simple, straightforward way to conduct business—a process she refers to as “prepare, perform, prevail.” This leadership technique includes clear objectives and rules, expectations and accountability, and a plan to debrief. Lohrenz stressed the importance of both briefing and debriefing in order to ensure that execution of a mission or plan is “boring.” She pointed to a Harvard Business Review publication that found that one hour of effective planning can help an organization avoid 200 errors during execution.

“Risk management and operating safely is everything to us,” she said. “We take the time to brief our team [so that] everybody knows what success is going to look like. [And] after every single flight, we debrief.”

According to Lohrenz, Navy and Marine Corps fighter pilots are the only ones who dare to land planes on aircraft carriers at night. They have to work through fear so that they can get their jobs done safely, and they have to learn to set that fear aside and work so that everybody is safe. Lohrenz challenged AIHce attendees to take what they learn at the conference back to influence their organizations and broader communities.

“The only way any of this is going to make a difference is if you take action,” she said. “If you can simply do one thing every day that either puts a pit in your stomach or a lump in your throat, I promise you will inspire and empower everyone around you to step up and start owning their role as a fearless leader as well.”

Kay Bechtold is senior editor of The Synergist.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce Daily page.