Leadership in Aviation

July 6, 2022

As a part of our Threat and Error Management series of articles, we supplement our Commercial Pilot Ground School with this article on leadership in aviation. Pilots can sometimes be good leaders, however they also succumb to pressures like any other human beings. We will examine different leadership styles, see what may be appropriate for commercial pilots and the airlines.

Leadership in Aviation Means a Lot of Things to a Pilot in Command

Leadership in Aviation for Threat and Error Management and CRM

A leader is a person whose ideas and actions influence the thoughts and the behaviours of others. Through the use of example and persuasion, and an understanding of the goals and desires of the group, the leader becomes a means of change and influence.

Effective leadership in aviation and managerial skills help to achieve joint task completion within a motivated, fully-functioning team through co-ordination and persuasiveness.

Explanation and Importance of Leadership in Aviation Industry: 

Leadership involves teamwork, and the quality of a leader depends on the success of the leader’s relationship with the team. Someone exercising leadership will provide direction to the group or team.

It is important to establish the difference between leadership, which is acquired, and authority, which is assigned. An optimal situation exists when the two are combined.

Skilled leadership is needed to understand and handle various situations. Personality and attitude clashes within a crew can complicate the task of a leader and can influence both safety and efficiency. Aircraft accident and incident investigations have demonstrated that personality differences influence the behaviour and performance of crew members.

Both leadership and followership are essentially skills which can be learned although the follower role is a supporting role that does not attempt to undermine the leader. One-upmanship would be a classic case of inappropriate behaviour both for the leader and for the follower.

Situational Leadership 

[Adapted form: K. Blanchard and Zigarmi P&D]

Leadership styles are defined using two behaviours; Directive Behaviour and Supportive Behaviour. The supportive behaviour is closely related to teamwork skills. This is where the two Toolbox skill sets meet.

Directive Behaviour is defined as: autocratic leadership, it is really one-way communication. You tell the person what, when, where and how to do something and then you closely supervise the person on the problem or task. Supportive behaviour is defined as: Listening to people, providing support and encouragement for their efforts and then facilitating their involvement in problem-solving and decision making.  

What are the different types of leadership?

There are 4 Leadership styles: Directive, Coaching, Supportive, and Delegating. In Situational Leadership an individual is exercising good leadership when using the adequate style for the given situation in addition the person would take into account the other team member’s competence and commitment, regardless of the position the person is assigned to within the crew.

Lots of things can go wrong before a flight. Effective leadership in aviation from a pilot in command can help get through a lot of difficult tasks before the flight even leaves the ground.

List of sub skills 


Authority and Assertiveness

The use of authority and assertiveness infers the ability to create a proper challenge and response atmosphere. The given command authority of the Captain should be adequately balanced by assertiveness and crew member participation. If a situation requires, decisive actions are expected.

Providing and Maintaining Standards 

Providing and maintaining standards refer to the compliance with essential standards (SOP’s and others) for the task completion. Supervision and intervention in the case of deviations from standards by other crew members is also part of this skill. If the situation requires, non-standard procedures might be necessary. Such deviations shall be discussed and announced.

Planning and Co-ordination

Planning and co-ordination refers to applying an appropriate concept for organized task-sharing and delegation in order to achieve top performance and to avoid workload peaks and dips. Communication of plans and intentions leads to coordinated activities within the whole crew.

Examples of Leadership in Aviation

  • Advocates own position
  • Takes initiative to ensure involvement and task completion 
  • Takes command if situation requires 
  • Motivates crew by appreciation and coaches when necessary 
  • Ensures SOP compliance 
  • Intervenes if task completion deviates from standards 
  • Having consulted the crew deviates from standard procedures if situation requires 
  • Encourages crew participation in planning and task completion 
  • Clearly states intentions and goals 
  • Having consulted crew, changes plan if necessary 

Red Flags 

  • Tasks not prioritized, resulting in pilot errors or omissions 
  • Not assertive 
  • Crew inputs ignored 
  • Lack of critical knowledge 
  • Crew members are highly critical or judgmental 
  • Crew members fail to discuss differences of opinion 
  • There is no direction or management of an event or situation 
  • Crew members fail to recognize conflict 

The Foolish Tradition of Silence

It is important not to confuse communication with a lack of leadership. There is a long tradition in aviation that asking for other people’s opinions and showing others your feelings are signs of weakness. This attitude has been at the root of poor cockpit communication, with captains frequently believing that to ask a crew member’s opinion was to put their leadership in question. Instead, they thought about problems in silence and made decisions without giving anyone insight into their thought processes. Sometimes the results were disastrous.

The Modern Attitude of Leadership in Aviation

In today’s climate, good leadership means something very different. It means valuing everyone’s opinion, but not believing that everyone is correct. It also means being able to weigh different opinions in the light of the current situation and choose among them, but not having to agree with what everyone says. And it means making people feel that their contributions have been important, even if their suggestions have not been followed up.

Today, in the services and the airlines, this concept of mutual support is now pervasive. Fewer and fewer pilots fly with the old attitudes. Those who do are actively discouraged from the habit and encouraged to change.

If you are in a position of leadership in aviation, it is a sign not of weakness, but rather of wisdom, for you to ask the opinion of all concerned, whether it be the most educated and experienced person in your crew or the least. Often, lack of experience gives rise to insights not possible from experts. In fact, bringing everyone into the decision-making process will not only help you settle on the best available decision, but also enhance the esteem in which you are held.

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Transport (2020) This information has been reproduced with the permission of Transport Canada.