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Leadership Lessons From One Of The First Female Fighter Pilots

Carey Lohrenz became one of the first female combat pilots in the Navy by not taking no for an answer.

Leadership Lessons From One Of The First Female Fighter Pilots
[Photo: Flickr user Expert Infantry]

On the surface, it might not seem like Carey Lohrenz’s old office has much in common with the rhythms and interactions found in the typical modern workplace.

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That’s because, back in the ’90s, her job as a naval aviator meant she spent most of her time in the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat, a beast of a fighter jet armed to the teeth with a machine gun and missiles with a range of more than 100 miles. During her time in the Navy–almost nine years, starting when she was 22–the F-14 was the premier supersonic strike fighter, and operating it, finally getting the chance to control that stick in the cockpit, was the culmination of an ambition Lohrenz had nurtured since she was young.

She’s the daughter of a former Marine Corps pilot, the sister of a naval aviator, and the wife of a former Marine Corps pilot. She set her mind early to earning her wings–never mind the ban on women flying combat aircraft that was still in place when she first started training at Aviation Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida.

Carey Lohrenz

For the 6-foot-tall Wisconsin native with an iron will who loved to fly, it didn’t matter. She had a plan: Don’t wait for an invitation or for the ban to be lifted. Get in the mix anyway, complete the required training, keep your head down, and try to finish at the top of the class. Then, if the door opens, you’ll be ready.

And that’s exactly what happened. When the combat exclusion policy that banned women from combat aircraft assignments was lifted in 1993, Lohrenz was already in line and became one of the first female combat pilots in the Navy assigned to fly the F-14 Tomcat.

How she did it was through a reliance on principles she shares these days as a consultant for business leaders and major corporations that have included AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, and TripAdvisor. She also wrote a book about her experiences as a fighter pilot, Fearless Leadership.

“That’s easy for you to say, you flew a fighter jet,” she says businesspeople tell her all the time. “Of course you’re fearless.”

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Turns out, though, the same qualities that helped Lohrenz believe in herself enough to head to flight school and earn her seat in a fighter jet can also help managers, company leaders, and business owners harness their own fears and do more than they think they can.

“It starts with having that mindset that you aren’t defined by somebody else’s limitations,” Lohrenz tells Fast Company. “No matter what barriers or obstacles are in front of you, you go for it anyway. Or somebody else is going to be sitting in your dream job, because you were afraid to step up and try.”

One of the leadership principles she took away from her time in the Navy is this: “No one but you can give you the permission to lead.”

Around the time she was graduating from college and getting ready to apply to the Navy, her brother was graduating from Aviation Officer Candidate School. In 1990, she went down to Pensacola for his graduation and met up with some of his friends–candidates to become pilots, like him.

One night, she went with a group of them to a bar on the Alabama-Florida state line, the Flora-Bama. After a few beers, the conversation began to flow freely, and the focus turned to Lohrenz when the group realized she had ambitions of flying, just like them.

Most of the guys there were fine with the idea, she recalls. Some thought it was cool. Some thought she was crazy to try. A few said things like, “You seem way too nice–why would you want to do this?” But Lohrenz still recalls the one guy who was “vehemently opposed” to the idea of her becoming a naval aviator. “Women should be the keeper of the home and family,” he declared, “and have no business in combat.”

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It was just one of many obstacles to be ignored on her way to the cockpit. As she writes in Fearless Leadership: “You can’t simply call on courage when it’s convenient for you. Courage is like a muscle. It needs to be exercised every day. . . . Get in the arena. Take the initiative and take action. If you don’t boldly take the first step, whether it’s acting with confidence in your team or accepting the challenge to speak the unpopular truth, how on earth can you ever expect the people you lead to do the same? . . . Leading requires that you not only push through your own limiting barriers, but also push through the fear of what other people think about you.”

She says that conversation in the Flora-Bama–and there were plenty of others like it–tweaked the little part of her that lit up and responded, “You don’t think I can do this? Watch me.”

Still, “acts of bravery don’t always take place in the cockpit at Mach 2,” she explains. “They can take place on otherwise normal days, in the moments when you have the courage to honor your voice, your instincts, and your passions as a leader.”

Although Lohrenz believes leadership requires that you accept the fact that you’re worthy of being a leader, she doesn’t mean the best leaders are free from any moments of doubt, hesitation, or self-consciousness. Rather, once leaders have fixed their own self-worth in their mind, they can get past barriers that might otherwise have tripped them up.

“If I’d have decided to wait until someone invited me to be a female fighter pilot–well, I’d still be waiting,” she says. “Someone else would have gotten there first. Someone else would be living my dream.”

Here’s an example of how she didn’t wait to be invited in. It was back in the summer of 1990, on a day when she was taking a seemingly never-ending battery of physical tests to qualify for Aviation Officer Candidate School, the first step on the road to becoming a naval aviator.

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During one test, she was told to look into a machine that tested eyesight, and to tell the instructor which ringlike object appeared closest to her. She looked closely and responded, “Well, none of them.” They all appeared to be the same distance away. “Ah,” came the reply. “It looks like you have no depth perception. That’s not a big deal. You could always do something else, like be a nurse.”

And so the book seemed to close right then, before she’d even had a chance to prove herself. Which is why for the next month, rather than take no for an answer, she sought out other Navy- and Air Force-sanctioned optometrists and ophthalmologists to get her eyes retested. It turns out that her eyes were fine.

She’d actually failed the regional vision exam because of dehydration. Her nerves were buzzing that day, and she’d forgotten to drink any water, and unbeknownst to her, dehydration can affect the ability to detect microscopic depth perception changes.

She didn’t forget the lesson. She wanted to pass badly enough that when she failed the first time, she asked herself, “I wonder if there’s another test I can take?”

To sum up another of her Navy-inspired principles in just one word: Act.

Consider, for example, the conditions in which Lohrenz operated. Upon takeoff, the jet rockets from zero to 180 miles per hour in just under two seconds. Adrenaline blasts through the pilot’s veins. Lohrenz tended to lean her head slightly forward when taking off–if she leaned back on the headrest, she’d have whiplash for a week.

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Landing the jet on a carrier at night, she says, is one of the most harrowing experiences in all of military aviation. And the stakes are high. Pilots in training normally get two opportunities to land a Tomcat on a carrier–fail both times, and “your career as a naval aviator is basically over,” Lohrenz says, with the pilot bounced from a carrier-based squadron.

“You can actually taste your own fear as you descend toward the pitching deck, knowing the back end of the ship is bobbing up and down in 30-foot rises and falls,” she writes in Fearless Leadership.

The landings are basically controlled crashes. She’s found that nothing compares to the experience. And the only thing that even slightly mitigates the tension and anxiety? Doing it again. And again. In other words, successful aviators–like successful businesspeople, of all stripes–are the ones who punch through their fear, who act, who keep getting back in the cockpit, as tough as it is, and stick another landing.

“The difference between who you are and who you want to be is what you do,” Lohrenz says. “When you’re trying to come aboard a pitching ship in a strike fighter aircraft at 165 miles per hour or getting launched by a catapult, going from zero to more than 180 miles per hour in less than two seconds–and the air boss screams through the radio, ‘Tomcat off the bow! Eject! Eject! Eject!’–there is no gray area. You have to take action.

“This bias for action is as critical to survival in business as it is in aviation. Fearless leaders can’t wait to see how things go. They can’t hold back. They have to move forward. They have to act.”

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About the author

Andy Meek is a freelance writer for Fast Company whose work also has been featured on Buzzfeed, TIME.com and Business Insider, among other places. He lives in Memphis and can be reached at andrew.e.meek@gmail.com.

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