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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Journal - How Leaders Can Cultivate a Fighter Pilot Mindset & Fail Forward

CEO Journal

How Leaders Can Cultivate a Fighter Pilot Mindset & Fail Forward

Kim “KC” Campbell

The sharing of lessons learned is part of the fighter pilot mindset because we want to help make the team better. When we have the courage to be vulnerable and share our stories, both good and bad, even when they expose mistakes or weaknesses, our experiences can help make other people better. We would face many failures in training and sometimes in combat, too, but the intent was that we would learn from them and then share them with other pilots. We had to learn to fail forward. 

I learned some powerful lessons during my flight training as a result of failures and mistakes. However, I also spent a lot of time critiquing myself and worrying about my mistakes when they happened. I was worried about what people would think. I was worried about not living up to expectations. The reality is, we all make mistakes. We all fail. It’s not if, but when. Therefore, we need to learn to fail forward. We can do this best by having a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. 

Dr. Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, talks about the importance of having a growth mindset: “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.” She goes on to explain the benefits of having a growth mindset when faced with failure: “Even in the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn’t define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.”

With a fixed mindset, however, Dweck explains, you will want to prove yourself correct and avoid looking deficient rather than learning from your mistakes. Those with fixed mindsets are likely going to avoid challenges and experiences where they might fail. And by doing so, they lose the opportunity to grow and improve. 

It took me some time to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset during flight training. Making mistakes and failing was painful. But the reality was, the instructors were also looking to see how we reacted when we failed. Could we learn from those mistakes and strive to be better? I became a better pilot and leader by working through those difficult experiences. If you allow it, failure can lead to growth and success. 

Leading By Example

We will inevitably make mistakes and fail on our leadership journey, and our teammates will observe how we respond in difficult moments. Failure is a real possibility when we push ourselves to try new things and get outside our comfort zones. If we are going to achieve a high level of performance, then we must embrace smart risk. When we set the example, our team will follow because they know it is safe to do so. 

General Jim Mattis, former Secretary of Defense, explained a comparable approach in his book, Call Sign Chaos. “If a commander expects subordinates to seize fleeting opportunities under stress, his organization must reward this behavior in all facets of training, promoting, and commending. More important, he must be tolerant of mistakes. If the risk takers are punished, then you will retain in your ranks only the risk averse.”

Mistakes will be made, so we need to encourage our team to acknowledge and learn from them. If we want the lower levels of our organization to think innovatively and be prepared to take risks, the example needs to come from the top. Failure may feel devastating, but we can’t have innovative success without it. 

Considerations for Leaders

To be effective in a rapidly changing environment, leaders must create a culture focused on continuous improvement where there is a desire to excel and be the best at what we do. So, how do we cultivate this fighter pilot mindset in our organizations? 

  • Be intentional about analyzing performance. Shift away from a mindset that failure results in punishment. 
  • Inspire teammates to get outside their comfort zones and try new things. Reward innovative ideas and smart risk-taking. 
  • Highlight the positive aspects of mistakes and failure by focusing on the lessons learned and what will be done differently the next time. 
  • Encourage team members to embrace vulnerability by sharing their experiences so that others can develop and grow. 

By inspiring this fighter pilot mindset within our team, we can thrive during stressful experiences and foster innovation and creativity. It’s okay for us to fail, but we need to fail forward . . . to fail and learn from what we did wrong. If you want to lead with courage, then adopt a fighter pilot mindset and learn to fail forward. 


Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Flying in the Face of Fear: A Fighter Pilot’s Lessons on Leading with Courage by Kim Campbell.
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CEOWORLD magazine - Latest - CEO Journal - How Leaders Can Cultivate a Fighter Pilot Mindset & Fail Forward
Kim “KC” Campbell
Kim “KC” Campbell is a retired Air Force Colonel who served in the Air Force for over 24 years as a fighter pilot and senior military leader. Kim has led thousands of airmen both at home and abroad in deployed locations and enabled them to succeed in their missions. She has experience leading complex organizations and driving cultural change. Kim has flown 1,800 hours in the A-10 Warthog, including more than 100 combat missions, and in 2003, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for Heroism after successfully recovering her battle-damaged airplane after an intense close air support mission. She shares her inspirational story and lessons with business and corporate audiences as an executive coach and keynote speaker and is the author of Flying in the Face of Fear: A Fighter Pilot’s Lessons on Leading with Courage.


Kim “KC” Campbell is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website CLICK HERE.