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Leadership Styles for Aviation Managers

An aviator seeking to transition from pilot or maintenance specialist to departmental manager should be aware of fundamental leadership styles- and relate those styles to his or her understanding of what needs to be accomplished. This article will outline the most frequently cited styles and relate them to typical scenarios found within flight departments. A word of caution- however: Rarely does one style fit all situations.

Jack Olcott   |   1st May 2014
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Jack Olcott Jack Olcott

Possibly the world’s most recognized advocate, if not expert on the value of Business Aviation,...
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An aviator seeking to transition from pilot or maintenance specialist to departmental manager should be aware of fundamental leadership styles- and relate those styles to his or her understanding of what needs to be accomplished. This article will outline the most frequently cited styles and relate them to typical scenarios found within flight departments. A word of caution- however: Rarely does one style fit all situations.

 

Authoritarian 
Perhaps the Authoritarian leadership style is most aligned with an aviator’s experiences. Many aspects of aviation are exacting. For example- an aircraft’s desired approach speed is a precise number determined by weight- aircraft configuration- density altitude and wind conditions.

When the co-pilot is given the opportunity to fly the approach and the captain is acting as safety pilot or instructor- there is little tolerance between what the captain desires and what the co-pilot is expected to achieve. If there is any doubt regarding what the co-pilot is or should be doing- the captain makes his or her intentions crystal clear and intercedes as needed. The captain is exhibiting the characteristics of an authoritarian leader.

An authoritarian leader maintains tight control over those employees he or she manages. Usually the relationship between leader and follower is strictly professional- often boarding on cold and impersonal. Supervision is very close- with little room for individualism on the part of those being managed. The leader sets the goals; usually engages in one-way communications when issuing directions; controls the conversation; and allows interaction by permission- rather than encouraging two-way dialogue.

The leader needs to clearly communicate what is expected- since an authoritarian style often stifles feedback and questions.

 

Paternalistic
Just as the name implies- the Paternalistic leader influences the flight department through serving as a father (or mother) figure. Those being lead follow as would loyal children- moved by the compassion and unselfish decisions of the team leader. In return for such paternalism- the leader expects complete trust and loyalty.

Life in the workplace- however- is not the same as the life at home that children experience as they transition to adulthood. Furthermore- children eventually want their own space and responsibility- just as employees desire to be treated as adults. A leadership style that is based upon a parent/child relationship has its own set of dynamics and limitations- which may complicate the effective leadership of highly motivated and skilled aviation personnel.

While it is appropriate that the leader exhibit concern for his or her employees- care must be taken not to foster an unrealistic environment.

 

Democratic
When faced with decisions- the Democratic leader seeks participation from those being lead. Such an approach is effective when the leader frames the discussion within the bounds of the flight department’s Vision- Mission and Guiding Principles. (If the flight department lacks such governing materials- the conversation can quickly diverge into an inefficient and ineffective talkfest.)

The leader aligns the options being considered with the interests of the corporation and the flight department- always shaping the direction of discussions and debate to move constructively toward a decision based upon consensus.

Research by educators within the field of management indicate that the Democratic style of leadership can be very effective when objectively practiced by an inspiring leader who is willing to encourage unbiased dialogue- is fair-minded- and listens well. Flight department personnel who participate in problem-solving are more likely to implement the solution that results from such leadership.

It must be noted- however- that a democratic approach still requires leadership and is not a license to abdicate the leader’s responsibility for the decisions that result from group participation.

 

Laissez-Faire
This form of leadership might be better described as ‘lack of leadership’. It is defined as a leadership style where the staff assumes all rights and powers for decision making. In essence- the leader takes a “hands-off” approach- delegating all tasks to those he or she is responsible for leading and providing very little- if any- direction. To preclude surprises and possible chaos- the leader must be aware of what the staff decides as a result of his or her laissez-faire approach.

Even with clear feedback from the staff to the flight department manager- such a management-style often results in low productivity and lack of standardization. Rarely is laissez-faire leadership desirable for running a corporate flight department.

 

Transactional 
Appearing in literature within the last 50 or so years- most notably in the early 1980s- Transactional leadership relies upon motivating others through a system of rewards and punishments. The main elements of such a system are “Contingent Rewards” and “Management-by-Exception”. The leader provides either physical or psychological rewards for performance that satisfies the needs of those being lead.

Thus the aviator who is steadfast in following Standard Operating Practices may do well working with a Transactional leader. Existing rules are reinforced- while there is minimal motivation for changing the status quo. Changes result from exceptions to established procedures rather than wholesale revisions of existing operational methods.

 

Transformational
Transformational leaders bring fresh ideas to the flight department by challenging and inspiring staff to examine what they do for the company and how their services can be delivered more successfully. In essence- such leaders are change agents by installing within their staff a sense of renewed purpose and commitment to their work.

Transformational flight department managers are willing to take risks and apply unusual strategies in the pursuit of achieving newly defined goals. Communicating effectively and offering compelling concepts for change are the key tools of transformational leaders. They are generally charismatic- self-confident and authentic- exhibiting comprehensive knowledge of Business Aviation as well as personnel management.

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