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The Four Wires of Leadership

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I recently was talking to a man living in our community who I have come to respect and who has become something of a teacher for me. His name is Keven O’Brian and he served for many years on a US Aircraft Carrier – the Lexington. Keven told me that the flight deck on an aircraft carrier is one of the most dangerous places to be – whatever your role on the carrier.  He also described the mechanism in place for jets as they land on the carrier after completing their mission. There are four arrest wires on the deck of the carrier that are intended to stop the jet (which hooks to the wire and comes to a stop, after which the jet is moved off the runway and stowed below deck).

The key issue is: which wire will stop the jet. If the first jet is stopped by the first wire then the challenge is not only for the pilot to recover from the abrupt stop but also for the landing crew to tow the plane off the main runway to a side runway (air craft carriers have a small runway that extends out to the port (left) side of the carrier). If the jet isn’t stopped until the fourth wire then there is the anxiety experienced by the pilot and carrier crew as to whether or not the jet will be stopped at all (crashing instead into the tower of the carrier or skipping off the stern of the carrier). If the plane has sufficient speed then it can regain altitude and circle for another landing—but this often isn’t possible.

As I mentioned, the first wire is not a great place to stop—it means that the plane was coming in too low or too fast. A first wire stop is not only hard on the pilot—it results in real strain on the wire and the crew (who have to get the plane away from the landing area. The best landing occurs when the jet stops at the second or third wire. Not too soon and not too late. Kind of like how leadership should be engaged in an organization – not too abrupt and not too slow. A bit delayed so that the situation can be accurately assessed, but not too long a delay that could lead either to a critical situation (that might be too late to address) or to action that no longer fits with the ever-changing situation.

I will draw an analogy between wires on the carrier and styles of leadership.  Let’s conceive of the leader of a team as an arrest wire and their team as the plane that is landing on the carrier. I would like to got into more detail about what this analogy might look like and what we might gain from a more detailed analysis with regard to the coaching of a leader.

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