Make possibility your perspective
Betty Shotton LIFTOFF LEADERSHIP
Market volatility, regulatory and political change, prolonged financial stress, stubborn personnel issues – these are facts of life for a leader in today’s economic and business climates.
And to make matters worse, when problems can’t be solved and obstacles seem insurmountable, they ultimately wind up on your desk.
In an uncertain world, it is critical that leaders hold on to the ability to look beyond and above adversity. Possibility is a valuable attribute to have when your back is up against the wall or when options are running out. It can elevate your perspective and shed light on novel and innovative solutions.
The Blue Angels gave me an early taste for converting the impossible into possible.
I grew up in a big house on a deadend street in a conservative town in Virginia. There were 16 families, 42 kids, and at one count more than 45 dogs. As a daughter, I was raised to have good manners, to be well educated, well dressed and well trained in social etiquette. The expectation was that I would need these things in order to be “well married.”
As I moved into my teen years, this blueprint was challenged. Women’s rights were starting to make waves. I rolled into my 20s in an era that said discrimination is not OK and equal rights for men and women are a constitutional guarantee under the 14th Amendment. The newly paved road to gender equality was not, however, a smooth one and I was often a test driver.
In 1982 I had just completed my MBA and was in the throes of job searching and facing the challenges of young adulthood. I decided to take a break and head home for a weekend of much-needed family pampering. On the agenda was a picnic outing to a Blue Angels air show at our local airport.
In those low-security days, the fields surrounding the runways were covered with cars filled with 30,000 of us, couples and families, enjoying a tailgating afternoon, and the thrill of the Blue Angels’ death-defying aerial maneuvers. I staked out a spot on our blanket and let my mind wander.
And then out of the blue, I heard the deafening roar of the full throttles of a fighter jet. As fast as I could turn my head to watch, two perfectly aligned F/A18s roared over my head, followed in rapid succession by two more and then two more. Snap rolls, barrel loops, diamond formations and wing-to-wing overlaps, contrails and low-level flybys were performed with an exactness that defied gravity and even mortality. The pilots couldn’t hear us, but we were all oohs and aahs, punctuated by thunderous applause. In that moment, I knew that I belonged up there with them, up there in the sky.
As I watched, I began to piece together the possibility of getting into the seat of a fighter jet and taking control of the stick. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a small blue trailer. It was a recruiting station for the Navy and I decided right then and there to sign up to become, if not a Blue Angel, then at least a fighter pilot.
After the show, we went to meet the pilots. Canopies thrown back, lifting themselves out of their cockpits, and jumping to the ground, the Navy men emerged with their crewcuts, perfectly ironed uniforms, well-built physiques and focused, no-nonsense demeanors. The contrast of my femininity flitted briefly through my mind.
Next stop, the blue trailer, where a smiling emissary of the Navy welcomed me into their temporary office.,?I want to be a fighter pilot,” I said. They seemed genuinely interested; I later learned that they were motivated by minority recruiting goals, which included quotas for women. I asked about flight training, and they answered with long explanations of maps and charts. I asked about the physical requirements of being a Navy pilot, and they talked about basic training and equal opportunity. I asked about the length of time it takes to solo, and they talked about teamwork and individual contribution to the missions.
Eventually the recruiter explained to me how I would be perfect for a navigator position, an important position on the flight team, he explained. I had never heard of a navigator, and what he described was a support role, a seat behind the pilots, attending to a complicated array of instrumentation and avionics. I did not hear the word fly or pilot.
“I don’t want to navigate,” I said. “I want to fly.”
“Females can’t be fighter pilots in the United States Navy.”
Bam! Doors were slammed shut; the shades were pulled down, my dream erased. The vivid imagery that my mind had created, which had me at the controls, vanished in the space of about 15 seconds. With a curt “no thanks,” I left that trailer a different person. I knew that I had been denied an opportunity simply due to my gender. It would be another 12 years (1994) before Lt. Kara Hultgreen became the first female fighter pilot in the Navy.
But in that moment of impossibility, I embraced possibility and vowed that I would be a pilot. I didn’t know how or when, but I made a commitment to myself to take the controls of a yoke and feel the power of a wide-open engine under my hand on a throttle. I made my future possible with the sheer force of my belief that where there is a will, there is a way.
That was 1982. I took my first flight lesson in 1986 and over the years earned my IFR, Commercial and ATP ratings. I have flown over 2,500 hours in single-engine planes, in twin-engine Cessnas and Pipers, and in executive-styled turboprops. I have yet to pilot a formidable jet. I haven’t given up on that dream, even though I don’t know how I will make it happen – not yet – I will.
Possibility was and continues to be a guiding principle in my leadership journey.
As you face an uncertain world and grapple with problems that seem to defy your best efforts at solution, adopt possibility as a perspective. Take off your blinders, replace can’t and won’t with can and will. Keep the doors open for discovery and innovation. Continue to look just beyond the horizon. That is where a future of exceptional leadership can be found.
Betty Shotton, Ocracoke Island, N.C., is a CEO and serial entrepreneur. She founded and led six companies including one that went public on the NYSE and is known today as ResortQuest International, a part of Wyndham Worldwide. She started two regional air carriers, SouthEast Air and SeaAir. She is the author of “Liftoff Leadership – 10 Principles for Exceptional Leadership.” The above article is excerpted from the book. For more information, visit www.liftoffleadership.com