Feel the fear. Do it anyways.
We've all heard that saying. But it's kind of different coming from Carey Lohrenz (above), one of the first women to fly the Navy's F-14 Tomcat fighter jet.
In her time as a fighter pilot, Lohrenz flew missions at the speed of sound. She landed her plane on aircraft carriers, going from 200 miles per hour to a dead stop in about 1.2 seconds--"a controlled crash," Lohrenz called it, during a New York event for family businesses hosted by Glenfiddich last week.
As a pioneer in the military's ultimate glamour-boy job, Lohrenz found herself in a fishbowl. Her flight performance was reevaluated when those of worse-performing male pilots were not. She was the subject of frequent media interviews on the subject of women in combat, something on which she'd never claimed to be an expert.
And she was ordered to fly right after her friend Kara Hultgreen, the only other female fighter pilot on her ship, died in a crash--even though most fighter pilots on an aircraft carrier would get a day off after a fellow pilot died in this way.
"My job came with extraordinary pressure," says Lohrenz. "The fear of failure is overwhelming, and yet you have to show up every day and do your job."
How do you do it? Lohrenz offers this advice for business leaders.
Forget about perfect information.
Lohrenz says that, as a pilot, there is just way too much information coming in for it all to be processed perfectly, or even well. When she was flying, there could be three different people speaking to her via radio, all at once. There were 42 distinct beeps and buzzers that could go off in the cockpit, each indicating something different. She had literally hundreds of knobs and dials to deal with.
And while flying at the speed of sound, her body would be exposed to eight times the force of gravity, draining the blood from her head and upper extremities and causing her toenails to feel as if they were about to pop off.
In short: These were not optimal conditions for decision making. The rule of thumb, Lohrenz says, was that 80 percent was good enough. If you were 80 percent certain of something, you did it.
Now, as a speaker and parent of four, Lohrenz says she's revised that rule of thumb: 75 percent works for her. She illustrated this with the photo she used as a Christmas card one year: One of her younger children was mostly hidden behind one of the older ones, with only his legs sticking out at sort of a weird angle. "I figured I'd catch up with him next time around," she says. "Then, the next year, we didn't send Christmas cards."
Pick three priorities.
Lohrenz started her presentation by emphasizing the importance of focus. "The No. 1 way to reduce anxiety in a volatile environment is to write down your top three priorities and focus on those," says Lohrenz. "It cannot be 27 priorities. You will be an inch deep and a mile wide."
Pilots deal with fear the same way the rest of us do, says Lohrenz: with food, sometimes, and with humor. Ignoring the fear, or adopting a Pollyannish attitude, doesn't work, says Lohrenz: "People sniff through that BS in a heartbeat, and then they don't trust you."
Instead, pilots use a unique jargon that serves in part to mask the magnitude of the danger they're facing. So a pilot who is running out of fuel, for example, is "bingo."
Lohrenz showed a video of a pilot trying repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, to land on an aircraft carrier at night, and at one point in the radio communication you could hear him clearly say "bingo." He did eventually land safely, and the video showed him later, on the ship, unable to hold his hand steady.
Lohrenz says as a pilot, when she was bingo, she could absolutely not radio something along the lines of, "I'm nearly out of fuel, and if I don't land this time safely, I'm going to die!" That obviously doesn't inspire confidence.
How she was perceived mattered, not just to the radio intercept officer in the back seat of her plane, but to the rest of the pilots and crew, any one of whom could view a video of any past landing attempt, at any time. The ideal radio communication, as Lohrenz demonstrated it, is so calm that it could be mistaken for that of a soulful DJ rather than that of someone trying to land a fighter jet.
Speaking of perception: Lohrenz was assigned the call sign Vixen, which she says she was sure was not her mom or dad's "proudest parenting moment."
Learn from failure. Fast.
That same pilot who couldn't hold his hand steady was nonetheless scribbling notes on it. Lohrenz says almost all the pilots she worked with were big on writing notes on their hands. They were taught to figure out what went wrong, and to figure it out fast--because those same shaking pilots would be back in the air 15 minutes later.
Adapt and stay flexible.
"What does it take to remain relevant?" asks Lohrenz. "In my world, that's staying alive and coming home."
This is part of why training to be an officer is so notoriously difficult. "What they're trying to do is bring you to your breaking point, both psychologically and physically," says Lohrenz. "They want you to be able to identify where that is. You will fail. Will you be the person who can get back up, or will you be crushed?"
"The fear of failure is universal and paralyzing for almost all of us," says Lohrenz, returning to a frequent theme in her talk. "We pass up valuable opportunities simply because we're afraid to fail. Once you realize that failure will happen, but that it's what you do with it that will define you--that lets you push forward and innovate."