Critical Thinking and Leadership
I am on the NBAA Corporate Aviation Management Committee (CAMC). CAMC is responsible for the annual NBAA Leadership Conference. At our last meeting in July we spent a day brainstorming topics and speakers for the 2013 conference (in Austin, TX in February 2013 – I highly encourage you to consider attending). As I thought about the characteristics that good leaders possess, I kept thinking about the importance of critical thinking. Good leaders don’t question everything for the sake of questioning, but they also don’t just accept what they are told because that is the easy path either.
In our own company, we are in the process of hiring a new technical director. This is an important position for us. Our organization’s dedication to overseeing the technical aircraft details and pre-purchase inspections for our clients’ sales and acquisition projects is a huge differentiating benefit of our service. Accuracy in the development of aircraft specifications and understanding aircraft we are acquiring, as well as good management of the pre-purchase inspection can have a large impact on our clients’ financial bottom line from their sale or acquisition. Successful technical oversight is overwhelmingly achieved because of critical thinking.
Critical thinking is about questioning when an answer does not, on its surface, sound like a scenario where 2+2=4 or when the answer to a question doesn’t seem complete or definitive. Critical thinking is about questioning until all possible options have been understood and exhausted. When considering aircraft maintenance, there are often many ways to fix aircraft discrepancies. Some requiring replacing parts, but sometimes, if you have time, you can have the same parts repaired for considerably less. Sometimes there are short term solutions that allow you to safely and successfully complete a trip for your organization, but then require affecting a longer-term solution when you return. A good leader (aviation director, director of maintenance, line pilot or line maintenance) will think critically about the options, not just stop a flight if there are possible solutions and not just through money at problems because replacing parts is the easy answer. Sometimes, by the way, you absolutely have to and should say that you can’t fly or you need to replace parts because those will be the right answers.
I was talking to a client’s director of maintenance recently. He was telling me a story about a problem that could have ended a big International trip before they ever left their home base. They were sitting on the ramp about to depart for a 12 hour flight with several other stops over a two week trip. They had a problem with a system on the aircraft and they were getting a warning alarm in the cockpit. This was an MEL system and they had experienced the same issue before, but thought it had been fixed. The maintenance director was on board. They immediately started to troubleshoot the system while on the ramp and also called system manufacturer’s technical support. They explained the problem they were experiencing, their history with the same issue, what they were doing to trouble shoot and isolate it and the details about trip they were trying to depart on. Because of the Director of Maintenance’s forward thinking having immediately started researching and troubleshooting the problem, he was able to quickly eliminate a lot of concerns and explain this to the manufacturer’s technical support. He also connected the system manufacturer’s technical support with the aircraft manufacturer’s technical support. As a team, everyone now involved (all while the passengers were standing by) collectively agreed that the system problem was a sensor problem and not the actual system itself. Having successfully identified that the system itself was in good working order, they were given a temporary flight authorization requiring that the DOM who was already going on the two week trip check the system after every 12 hours of flight. Because he thought critically about the problem and worked to identify all possible issues and solutions, and he was forward thinking to simultaneously build the right team of people to help, he was able to save the trip and safely get the senior executives to their meetings around the world. For most people, this issue would have cancelled the trip before it started. Had it really been a safety of flight issue this DOM would have immediately stopped his trip, but as it turned out it wasn’t. This was a great example of how out of the box problem solving, critical thinking and forward thinking to coordinate everyone’s efforts and lead the team to find a safe solution were imperative skills for any great leaders.