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What Do Piloting a Plane and Running a Business Have in Common?

Aviation and entrepreneurship may seem a world apart, but they have more overlap than you think.

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Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The concept of flight has always fascinated me. Growing up, I was mesmerized by the way in which planes defy odds — soaring into the sky and traversing hundreds of miles despite the elements. One of man’s most resilient inventions, in my opinion at least.  

As a kid, I didn’t have the opportunity to fly all too often. Fast forward many years and several certifications later, and I earned my private pilot license. Truthfully, it is one of my favorite pastimes. It allows me to disconnect from the mundane and coast calmly into the air— at times, it’s even meditative. There are few things like it. 

Though it has its paradisical appeal, piloting is a weighty endeavor and one that I take seriously. Becoming a proficient pilot has reinforced some key business lessons for me as the CEO of Asset Living, one of the largest apartment managers in the United States. While they may seem different, here are three things aviation can teach us about leading as an entrepreneur.  

Related: 5 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Starting My Career

Communication is a nonnegotiable 

In every aspect of aviation, effective communication is critical. Whether you are speaking with your co-pilot, various control towers or other planes in the air, being clear and concise matters more than ever. Put simply, good pilots say what they mean and mean what they say. There isn’t room to sugar coat or gloss over matters. Being direct and honest are essential, particularly when you are 40,000 feet up in the atmosphere.  

It goes without saying that communicating well in the business world is equally important. As a leader and entrepreneur, your soft skills tend to matter more. Are you able to galvanize your team toward a common goal? Can you provide effective employee feedback? Can you convey your organization’s mission to prospective investors? How well you communicate all of this will drive (or stunt) your business’s success and its future trajectory.  

Related: 5 Ways to Be a Strong Leader

Accountability and attention to detail are paramount  

Attention to detail carries a whole new meaning when you’re operating heavy machinery high in the air. As the adage states, the devil is in the details. And, in this case, the details can mean the difference between life and death. That’s why comprehensive checklists are an aviation professional's best friend. No item on the preflight checklist can be overlooked. If leaders were to approach their day to day with this same level of focus and scrutiny, the results would be exemplary. Taking shortcuts can cause severe consequences. When pilots try to cut corners, they find themselves in trouble — and the same can be said about business leaders. 

Pilots are able to get you from your departure location to a destination halfway around the world because they tend carefully to their checklist (e.g., the details). In the business world, being detail-oriented is also invaluable. Team members that can not only think big picture, but also execute flawlessly at a granular level set themselves — and the projects they work on — up for success. There’s no secret recipe to overnight business success. Sure, you can innovate and think outside of the box — in fact, it’s encouraged — but you must also follow certain protocols and ensure you’re doing your due diligence when it’s required. Good pilots trust but verify, a concept I think many business leaders can integrate into their leadership dogma.  

Remaining proactive is literally a lifesaver  

Preparation inherently leads to a smoother flight. There’s a popular saying among pilots: “Stay ahead of the plane.” You never want to get behind the plane — that’s often when you encounter trouble. As a pilot, if you’re not doing something, you’re likely falling behind. Similarly, as an entrepreneur, you should always remain productive — looking for ways to grow, innovate and improve your business. 

Pilots tend to cultivate a strong intuition, and their ability to prepare and remain proactive is admirable. I believe good entrepreneurs share these traits — they’re able to avert crisis, mitigate risk and, in turn, maximize return. I’ve also learned that almost anyone can pilot in good conditions. Great pilots, however, are the ones that can navigate adverse situations (e.g., bad weather, emergency situations and unexpected changes). In the business realm, this concept also holds true. A truly gifted leader is able to assess uncertain situations, take calculated risks and, ultimately, take their organization to the next level regardless of the competitive landscape.  

As both a pilot and an entrepreneur, people regularly rely on you. As a pilot, it’s a matter of life and death. While this may not be the case for entrepreneurs and CEOs, they are responsible for the livelihood of those who work for them. That’s why it is inherently the role of both a CEO and pilot to take care of those under their charge — at its core, that’s what good leaders and good pilots have in common.  

Related: How to Build a Business and a Family at the Same Time

Ryan McGrath

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Ryan McGrath is a leading private-equity-backed CEO, entrepreneur and real-estate investor. As president and CEO of Asset Living (the fifth largest apartment manager in the U.S.), he leads a team of over 4,500 employees with approximately $15 billion in AUM.