Manager: Superhero or Pilot?

Cranfield School of Management

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Manager: Superhero or Pilot?
By Stephen Carver

Are you a superhero or a pilot? Behind this somewhat enigmatic question is a crunch issue for managers: how do you approach your task, particularly when crises arise? In this article, I will examine the style and working practices of project managers, who reflect the issues and choices that all managers face. Typically managers can be divided into camps, those who plan and anticipate-the pilots-and those who prefer to deal with issues as they arise-the superheroes. Managers should be pilots first and superheroes perhaps second, but only if things go wrong. At Cranfield we employ a useful analogy, that projects should be flown by a pilot, the manager, and their intent is to make the take off, the cruise and the landing as predictable, indeed as boring, as possible. Most managers think of themselves as cool, calm pilots, looking at all the instruments, taking in all the data and keeping a cool head. However, in my experience most managers unfortunately are not like this. They like to wear the hat, they like to call themselves a pilot – preferably a captain, of course – but actually most of them are crisis managers, because they enjoy it. They become superheroes all too readily.

Being a superhero is wonderful fun, but it is not management. Management and anticipation go together and a good pilot will sit down and plan before they take off, allowing for conditions such as weather. Now, something like the engine might blow up, albeit very rarely indeed – and if the pilot were to suddenly grab their Blackberry and start running round the cockpit ordering people around, they would swiftly be retrained, because even in that moment of crisis they are expected to be supermen or women, but very calm supermen or women, who have a plan to back up their original plan.

Some Pilot’s Instructions for Managers

So if I were to give some pilot’s instructions for managers, what would that list of instructions contain? Planning and anticipating would be top of the list, and it is worthwhile looking at this issue of planning in more detail. Good managers plan before they get themselves up to 10,000 feet; bad managers just take off and then think where are we going? How am I going to get down? And then they turn into so-called superheroes. So how come adrenaline rushes to our head in these situations and we end up as being more like superheroes than pilots? Sir John Harvey Jones summed it up years ago, which was that people don’t like to plan, planning is unnatural – it is far more fun just to do and the nice thing about just doing, in other words action, epitomised by superhero, is that failure comes as a complete surprise.

How do you get to be the good planned manager, the pilot, rather than veer towards a commonly preferred mode, the superhero? Most managers I have come across have lost control of their time agenda. A pilot attitude of mind means that you set up the right systems; but expect substantial opposition because most superheroes enjoy this way of working; they get recognised, it is stimulating and they like that. And so if someone starts to try and build some structure in the organisation through better planning, then opponents often fight it tooth and nail.

When there really is a crisis

What do you do when your business looks similar to what happened to a plane near the Hudson last year – a catastrophic double engine failure – a bigger crisis you cannot imagine, flying a plane like a glider over Manhattan with seconds to go. The pilot stayed completely calm, he got the plane down, he kept the passengers calm, everyone got out safely. That is what a good pilot does, when requirements dictate they need to become a superhero. But my firm advice is that it is pilot first, superhero afterwards – and only if necessary. So is it technique or is it attitude of mind? It is attitude of mind, without a shadow of a doubt. You can slip into superhero mode so quickly; you can go into a panic with everybody else and it is great fun, very hysterical, with lots of Blackberry use, lots of leaping out to taxis and planes. In reality it is ultimately a fairly pointless and energy sapping way of managing an organisation or a project.

Final reflections

We should extend pilot thinking globally: it is arguable that if we had had better planning and people were thinking about how we were flying and where we were heading, we would not be in the economic predicament that we now face.

We have all seen the results of superheroes getting us into difficulties and who now seem to be having even more fun trying to get us out! Of course, this suggested change in approach represents a significant and widespread culture shift, but I believe that the time is right, people are ready to manage in a more considered way. Are you?

Stephen Carver is the course director for Developing Personal Performance for Programme Managers.

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