When you are faced with many distractions…remember to fly the airplane.


It looks like there’s a Star Wars marathon on this weekend, and I fell right into the middle of A New Hope last night.

One of the more memorable scenes from that movie involves a team of pilots on a mission to destroy the Death Star.  In the midst of an attack run, two of the pilots come under attack by the bad guys.  One of them starts to look around and panic.  The other one simply continues speaking a mantra while keeping his sights on the objective…

“Stay on target.” 

The little mantra has been repeated in many internet memes and, no doubt, executive conversations.  And, there’s a reason.

When stuff starts going off kilter around you…staying on target is hard to do.

A great example of an exhortation to “stay on target” is contained in Atul Gawande’s excellent book The Checklist Manifesto.  In it, he describes the first instruction in the emergency checklist for a single engine airplane. It’s simple.


That’s right.  When you are the pilot and the troubleshooter, the most important thing to do in an emergency is actually not to troubleshoot.

It’s to fly the airplane.

There’s good learning in there for business leaders.  Let me describe three ways.

The first way is relevant to people who have a little bit too much of the philosopher in them.  These are the CEOs who relish high concept but not the nitty gritty.  They take the need to have a long term view too far, and they stop responding to short term needs.  CEOs who never meet with customers fall into this bucket. Yes, they exist.  Their failure is usually in ensuring delivery vs. direction.  I once worked near a CEO who had famously told his investors “I delivered you a 3 year plan, but not a 1 year plan.”   That’s the CEO who forgot to fly the airplane.

The second way is relevant to modern managers who struggle on the opposite end of the spectrum.  They are the ones who can’t look up from the gauges to see the mountain ahead. They spend too much time with customers or on the production floor, and too little time on direction of the company overall. These are the Dale Carnegie grads who always put people first, but who forget to stay on target with the organization as a whole.  The best examples of these executives are the ones who build magnificent operations and organizations tailored to solving yesterday’s problems.  You probably know them.

The third way is relevant to those who struggle to define what “flight” is.  These are the executives who only pursue financial performance as their “target.”  They think of flight only as airspeed and lift and not safe arrival at a destination.  The executive here is the one who hits every key performance indicator except the ones that point to the health of the business.  They are the ones whose customers are indifferent and whose top performing employees are leaving in droves. Next time you see a sick company with a CEO who departs after earning the biggest bonus of his or her life, you will think about this type of executive.

So…in your own life, you must “stay on target” and “fly the airplane.”  It matters whether you are too focused on the long term or the short term. And, it matters when you may not have defined what a healthy target (or flight itself) actually is.



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