You’d be surprised by the number of similarities between the most common causes of military jet crashes and those of business failures. I have a unique perspective on both having served on accident investigation teams for the USN and Boeing and, for the last 13 years, come to the aid of business owners of start-ups and established businesses alike, striving to place their company on a sustainable growth path.
As a former Flight Safety Engineer for Boeing, one of my responsibilities was to support accident investigations involving our military jet fighters. As you might expect, the U.S. spends considerable resources analyzing aircraft accidents and sharing the findings. The reasoning is that if you can identify the causes and share the results you can drastically reduce the chance of the accident from happening again. The same should hold true for businesses. Right?
Let’s explore an accident I helped to investigate. It involved an F/A-18 at an air show. The pilot was demonstrating the aircraft’s maneuverability by performing a square loop. He crashed at the bottom of the loop - striking the ground with such force that he broke his back, legs and arm. Because the aircraft remained largely intact, we were able to pull computers and memory, install them in a simulator, and replay the flight, watching all the instruments as well as the stick and throttle movements.
We witnessed the simulator mimic the pilot as he pulled the aircraft up into the vertical climb of the square. We paid particularly close attention to the aircraft’s altitude and airspeed indicators. I recall there was a collective gasp in the room when we saw that the pilot had cut the top of the square too low to complete this maneuver. The primary cause of this accident became immediately clear - pilot error.
What does this have to do with running a business? Owners often make poor decisions when piloting their business in the pursuit of growth. In retrospect most could easily be avoided with strict adherence to a well thought out plan, assuming of course, there is a plan.
In this case the flight (business) plan was a square loop that the pilot (business owner) failed to execute properly. The maneuver (plan) required that he hold the climb (Step 1) for several hundred more feet before executing the pull at the top of the loop (Step 2). By deviating from the plan and not gaining the proper altitude (cutting short the foundational work in the business plan) the pilot (business owner) put his plane (the company) in jeopardy.
Yet still, the pilot (owner) had a chance to minimize the damage (save the company) when he cut short his ascent at the top of the loop. Realizing his problem, the pilot still had two choices available: (1) Abort the maneuver by simply rolling the aircraft upright and continue the show (admit error and return to the plan) or, (2) Proceed with the maneuver (on a gut feeling), thinking he could pull it out by sheer force of will. The pilot chose option two.
So why would a pilot (owner), with all the instruments (sales data, advisers, etc...) telling him he is too low to complete the maneuver, proceed anyway? Let’s return to the accident investigation to find out.
The pilot was an very experienced Marine. He was a fireplug of a man who worked-out with intensity. He took great pride in his shape, physical strength and health. This is likely what saved his life but it was also a contributing factor in the crash. He felt he could, through sheer strength, pull the aircraft through this maneuver before hitting the ground. Somewhere in the back of his mind he believed the rules for that maneuver (plan) were designed for the average pilot (owner) and that he, with his above average strength and experience, could prevail where others might not.
We often see highly confident business owners act on instinct. They don’t do the proper market research or long-term planning because they think the rules don’t apply to them. And the outcome is almost always the same - failure or a significant loss of cash burned (crash and burn) in the process.
And let’s not forget ego. The pilot had friends and family in the airshow audience. This was a hometown crowd and the last day of the show. Imagine how hard it would be to admit to his friends that he screwed up and had to abort one of the more dramatic acrobatic stunts unique to this aircraft. Think of the ribbing he would take when he landed. It might have been awkward and a bit humiliating but surely a better alternative than risking life and limb (bankruptcy), right? Not for this Marine. Aborting the maneuver was not an option.
There is something strange that happens the moment you add the title Owner, President, or CEO to your business card. You become a performer. In a way you view your employees, investors, business acquaintances, customers, friends and family as members of a great audience. There are expectations and preconceived notions you put in your head about how you should perform (run your business). For example, never show weakness or indecision, never admit you don’t know, never admit you made a mistake, and never reach out for help. This, “I can not disappoint my audience” mentality led this pilot to continue the maneuver and crash. It has led business owners to do the same.
The pilot miraculously survived this accident (see video below), recovered from his injuries and eventually returned to flying. This is rare for pilots and business owners alike. Who knows how many pilot lives were saved from this investigation and the sharing of his story. I hope the same will prove true for those who are pilot-in-command of their business.