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Leadership Forum: February 2019


February 1, 2019
By Matt Pegg

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I am very privileged to have had the opportunity to fly as a commercial pilot for a number of years. As I began my flight training, and later flew corporate aircraft across North America, I was always amazed at the synergies between professional aviation, incident command and leadership.

There are many leadership lessons that are drawn from aviation and for leaders who set organizational agendas and strategic plans for their services. There are important and powerful lessons that can be learned.

When you take control of an aircraft, enter the runway and begin the take-off roll, you set what is commonly referred to as “take-off thrust.” This is at or near the maximum thrust that the aircraft is capable of producing. As the aircraft begins to move and accelerate, the speed is reached where the nose wheel is lifted off the ground by the pilot and the aircraft begins to fly.

Take-off or maximum thrust is continued until the aircraft reaches a safe altitude of at least 1,000 feet above the ground and, depending on the location, up to 3,000 feet above the ground. At that point, the pilot reduces the thrust setting to “climb thrust.” Climb thrust is maintained throughout the climb out and once the aircraft reaches cruise altitude, the thrust setting is again reduced to cruise thrust.

Why does the pilot reduce the thrust setting once the aircraft is safely flying and then again once in cruise? Why not fly the aircraft at maximum thrust in order to get to the intended destination as fast as possible?

There are many reasons for this in aviation. Allow me to share a few of them as we draw out the leadership lessons from each.

The higher the thrust setting, more fuel is burned. Airplanes burn huge amounts of fuel when operating at take-off and climb thrust. Organizations that are operating at full-throttle also consume extreme amounts of energy and can push the members of these teams (the organizational engine) to the point of failure or to the point where they are out of gas.

We need maximum thrust to get things moving, but that pace or effort should not be sustained for the long haul.

In aviation, it is critical for pilots to reserve some of the available thrust in the event that something goes wrong. If we flew around at maximum thrust all day and an engine failed, there would be no additional thrust available for use when responding to the emergency. Likewise, organizations and teams that operate at maximum thrust every day have no reserve energy, capacity or resources to deal with problems and issues that will undoubtedly be encountered.  This is a recipe for an organizational crash.

As passengers seated comfortably in the back of an airplane, we are almost entirely unaware of what is happening in the flight deck. Many times, on every flight, adjustments are made to address weather, navigation and countless other issues that the pilots encounter during the course of the flight.  

Everyone but the pilots are usually unaware that slight adjustments are being made to the flight plan during the course of the flight. Likewise, as the leaders of our teams and organizations, it is our responsibility to make the slight adjustments to the plans and paths that we are travelling in order to avoid larger issues and problems.

The goal of commercial aviation is actually not to get from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time. Rather, the goal is to travel from the point of departure to the destination in the most efficient, cost-effective and safest manner possible.

As leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are driving our teams and organizations in a manner that is both responsible and achievable and at a pace that both ensures that we do not burn out our teams and that we are maintaining an appropriate amount of reserve capacity for when emergencies or problems arise.

This has been a very powerful realization for me of late. In the organization that I lead, we have been operating at maximum thrust for an extended period of time as we have all worked very hard to get some major initiatives under way. It is now my responsibility, as the leader, to transition our organization from “take-off thrust” to “cruise thrust” as we continue on our journey.

As leaders in our organizations, we must ensure that we are reserving capacity for unplanned issues and emergencies that will undoubtedly arise. Sustainable results depend on it.


Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. Contact Matthew at matthew.pegg@toronto.ca.


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