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Leadership Lessons from the First Female Fighter Pilot

The first ever female F-14 Tomcat Fighter Pilot in the U.S. Navy, Carey Lohrenz brings her experience of fast-moving, dynamic environments, where poor decision-making can lead to catastrophe, to the world of business strategy. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, where she was a varsity rower training at pre-Olympic level, Carey attended the Navy Aviation Officer Candidate School, going on to fly missions worldwide as a combat mission ready Navy pilot. She is currently working on her MBA in Strategic Leadership.

I think there are three fundamental and necessary traits that every fearless leader has: courage, tenacity and integrity.

SPEAKING.COM: What are some of the main leadership lessons you learned while being the first female F-14 Fighter Pilot in the U.S. Navy?

LOHRENZ: I think there are three fundamental and necessary traits that every fearless leader has: courage, tenacity and integrity. These three are the “secret sauce” for leading any team through constant change and challenging times. Fearless Leadership in action, though, requires you to be able to set a clear vision to inspire and align your team; to be able to develop a culture of excellence, to perform consistently, and, most importantly, how to be resilient, so you can bounce back when bad stuff happens, and actually benefit from the experience.

SPEAKING.COM: Why did you want to become a Fighter Pilot?

LOHRENZ: I knew from the very beginning that I’d be an aviator. Flying was in my blood.

My older brother and I grew up playing with Dad’s silk maps and flight gear from Vietnam. We’d perform imaginary feats of daring and skill, pretending to be pilots just like our dad, a former United States Marine Corps aviator. After he left the armed forces, my dad flew for a major airline until retirement; my mom had been a flight attendant before having us kids. Given this heritage, my brother and I had no doubt, even as kids that we were destined for the cockpit, and we were both right.

I was drawn to naval aviation and the culture it held so dear: mission before self.

We can’t talk about fearless leadership, peak performance, or being an “industry leader,” without understanding that risk is necessary.

SPEAKING.COM: What are some of the keys to being on the “Leading Edge?”

LOHRENZ: History shows that we need to keep looking around the corner, to keep pushing the envelope, to grow into the person, the organization, that we were meant to be. One of the greatest challenges in the complex and ambiguous environment of leadership is to get clarity on what you want your team to accomplish. That is going to require leaders to be the catalyst; you need to spark people’s dreams and desires. Fearless leaders can come into a room and get the team aligned and excited so you can all get where you want to go FASTER.

Yet, we can’t talk about fearless leadership, peak performance, or being an “industry leader,” without understanding that risk is necessary.

And when you’re trying something new, it will get messy. Rarely is something new or different done perfectly the first time. Nor can you give lip service to leadership development, or “growing your people,” or encouraging your team to be “on the leading edge,” if you’re simply going to shove them off a cliff at the first sign of a struggle.

For a fighter pilot, speed is life. You must make decisions quickly. You must take the initiative and push the envelope, or you will be left behind.

SPEAKING.COM: What are some main life-balance tools that people can employ in order to regain control of their personal and professional life?

LOHRENZ: As a wife, a mom to four kids, and a business owner, I understand that a successful career, a happy family, and a balanced personal life, can leave little time for many people to nurture their dreams. Oftentimes, we get so caught up in the day-to-day distractions that we forget to actually enjoy the present, let alone dream about the future.

To help regain control of your personal and professional life, you need to have a Flight Path for Success.

Any sort of work-life balance or work-life integration requires awareness. Where are you today? Where do you want to go? (Hours of work, level of stress, time with friends and family, hobbies, etc.) What do you value? What are your priorities? How do you define success? All of this takes self-reflection before you can successfully choose the way you want to live. Write those goals down, and then focus on what matters, know your priorities, and let the rest go.

Say “no” to those things that don’t support your goals.

Be committed, unwavering, intentional, and purposeful in your actions.

Make a plan and stay focused.

Plan, prioritize, and adjust. Repeat. Some days, it feels like that circus trick of having one foot on two different galloping horses; not always easy, but doable!

The clearer the vision, the easier it is to say “no” to those things that don’t help you achieve your goals.

SPEAKING.COM: In one of your popular keynote speeches, you discuss “remaining relevant.” How does someone remain relevant?

LOHRENZ: By starting with a clear, inspiring vision.

There is an enormous amount of competition vying for your team’s attention. In order to remain relevant, you need to cut through the noise to gain and hold your teammates’ attention. As a leader, you must think about those things that do not contribute to the end state. If it doesn’t support your goals, get rid of it! As we say in fighter aviation, “If you lose sight, you lose the fight.” The clearer the vision, the easier it is to say “no” to those things that don’t help you achieve your goals.

The other critical factor is to always be learning, and avoid complacency. Know what matters to your customers, your clients, and your partners.

When change happens, uncertainty and ambiguity can paralyze your team. Fear sets in, caution envelops us, and instead of strapping into our fighter jet and going for it, we curl up and wait for the storm to pass, for things to settle down. But what if this change in your environment is your team’s new normal? You don’t have the luxury of waiting for things to blow over. To remain relevant, you must learn quickly by continuing the open dialogue about what is working and what isn’t. Find a way forward, or make one. Create your own future by taking action. Don’t be a passenger in your own life, and don’t let your team’s future flail in the wind. Take risks and learn from your mistakes.

SPEAKING.COM: Would you please give us three tips for managing risk?

LOHRENZ: Naval aviators are world-class risk managers. Few other professions in the world take risk as seriously as we do.

One of my favorite quotes is from Neil Armstrong: “There can be no great accomplishment without risk.” I love this saying.

Managing risk is about having the courage to start, to go first, when there are no guarantees. It’s about being innovative, learning, and pushing the envelope.

This is not the same thing as taking bad risks or showing false bravado. It is simply choosing to live with the possibility of hope instead of being crushed and paralyzed by your fears. The most successful people I know have that kind of courage, that kind of bravery that makes other people scratch their heads and say, “I can’t believe you did that!”

So how can you do that?

1. Feel the fear, and do it anyway! When leaders display courage, whether in the air or in the boardroom, it’s truly contagious.

2. Fearless leadership and risk-taking requires you to embrace discomfort — to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

3. Debrief. It is the single most powerful tool to manage risk, and reduce errors. Analyze how things went, what worked, what didn’t, and why. This dynamic process will help make the seemingly impossible, possible. It will allow you to execute your strategy effectively, adapt and adjust quickly, and manage risk effectively. And, crucially, it will help you and your people learn to value any failure as a learning opportunity, and thus, get over your fear of uncertainty and failure, increasing your fearlessness.

SPEAKING.COM: How does partnering contribute to business success?

LOHRENZ: The same steadfast interdependence and synergy demonstrated by wingmen in aviation and in combat is necessary to transform partnerships with colleagues, coworkers, and friends into collaborative relationships that can help you achieve success. Whether you are a seasoned executive, an entrepreneur, or new to the business world, creating a work environment based on mutual support and trust is crucial to success.


To bring Carey Lohrenz to your organization to inspire your team, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com.

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  • Carey Lohrenz In her inspirational keynotes and motivational programs, Carey shares the fundamentals that helped her win in the cockpit at Mach 2, and can help your team win in business. As the first female F-14 Tomcat Fighter Pilot in the U.S. Navy, having flown missions worldwide as a combat-mission-ready United States Navy pilot, Carey Lohrenz is ... more

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