A Real Life Leadership Story

A Real Life Leadership Story

A college senior I know was the Director of a team of engineering students competing in SAE Aero Design, an international competition to design, build and fly an original aircraft.  I was asked to coach him in leadership and team building.

The time came for the competition.  There were dozens of teams from all over the globe.  I was invited to attend the event and watched the team as they went through their pre-check, testing each component of the plan and its interaction with is remote flight controller.  Everyone had their task and were busy getting it done.

Soon it was time for the first flight.  We watched the plane run smoothly down the runway but just as it lifted off the ground, something went very wrong.  The aircraft tipped severely to one side and crashed.  The team was devastated as the team members went onto the airfield to remove the pieces of their hopes.  The plane was a total loss.

They only had 45 minutes until their next scheduled flight time.

The team members, still stunned, stood around the wreckage.  The Director, with his leads, reviewed the video taken of the flight to try to figure out what went wrong.  Soon the Director went into action, salvaging what he could and pulling new parts out of their trailer.  At one point he stood up and looked at me, and I nodded him over.

“It is all my fault,” he said.  “The controls on the aileron were set backward.  It was my job to make sure it was all set up correctly. That’s why the plane crashed.”

I asked quietly, “Why are you trying to fix it all by yourself?”

He walked back to his team and started giving out instructions.  Everyone jumped into action showing their knowledge, skills, and distinct team roles and teamwork.  Fortunately, they had brought backup parts, and the team assembled a new aircraft before their next flight time.  Of course, being new, it had never flown before.

Not a whisper of finger pointing or blame among the entire team.  Every team member was locked in on what needed to be done.

Time for their next flight.  The aircraft moved smoothly down the runway and took off into the sky, flew its route, and landed successfully.  But one of the judges detected a decal fall from the plane as it lifted off the ground.  By rule, it is an automatic disqualification if any part of the aircraft comes off during the flight.  DQ!

The team took the plane back to their work area, and several grabbed rolls of tape and reinforced every decal on the plane.  No disagreement.  The team focused on the goal, not the problem.  Then all they could do was wait until their next turn on the competition schedule.

After two disappointments, there were plenty of fingers crossed as they moved the plane onto the airfield for their third try.  This time there was a sure takeoff; quick turn of the course, and a very smooth landing, all accompanied by the sound of celebratory cheers.

The rest of the flights made by the team that afternoon were equally perfect, and 4 or 5 of the members came up to me to tell me it wasn’t all the Director’s fault – they should have seen the same problem before attempting the first flight.

If this were a fairy tale or a Hallmark movie I’d tell you they came back to win the competition.  The truth is there, were many worthy competitors that day, but even with zero points scored on their first two attempts, they managed to finish among the leaders, congratulated each other, and made plans for a celebratory dinner.

As I drove away from the competition, I wondered if the men and women on that team knew how fortunate they were.  If they had merely won, they would have credited their hard work but not truly understood the depth of their preparation.  When things went wrong, their leader stepped forward, and the team went into action showing their training, alignment, and character.  Their response showed that in the prior months they didn’t only create an aircraft; they built a team.

Building a team takes the same design, invention, construction, testing, and execution to succeed.  When disaster struck, the team did what it was created to do: construct an aircraft and fly it.  I trust the team members understand what they did was a more significant and more substantial than winning ten competitions.   Well done!  And even more deserved!

If you are struggling with leadership and team issues, and want to know what the Director and I discussed about in the months leading up to the competition, contact me here.

“We can’t guarantee success, but we can do something better.  We can deserve it.”

– John Adams

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