wrightplane

This iconic photo was taken December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Orville Wright is at the controls of the first heavier-than-air-powered flying machine carrying a person. Watching him take flight is his older brother Wilbur. The trip will last but 12 seconds and will cover only 120 feet, but it will change history, ushering in the age of manned flight.

In his new book, The Wright Brothers, David McCullough tells the story of this amazing duo from Dayton, Ohio. They had no college degrees, no formal technical training (they owned a bicycle shop and repaired and built bicycles), no influential friends, and no financial backers or government subsidies (they financed their experiments with the proceeds from their bicycle business). In spite of these conditions, they changed the world.

There are some important leadership lessons to be learned from these remarkable men, and the lessons are relevant over a century later.

Focus on the Solution 

The Wright brothers encountered one failure after another—broken equipment, harsh weather, illness, and in 1909 a crash that nearly killed Orville. In spite of these setbacks, the brothers would simply acknowledge what had happened and move on.

They conquered one obstacle after another with determination and insatiable curiosity.

Great leaders are focused on moving forward. They view obstacles as something to be overcome. They focus on what they can do while learning from what didn’t work.

Don’t Let Others Determine What is True

At the turn of the last century, many Americans’ belief about man-made flight could best be summed up by a resident of the Carolina Outer Banks, “We believed in a good God, a bad Devil, and a hot Hell, and more than anything else we believed that same God did not intend man should ever fly.”

Upon hearing news of the December 17th flight, the average American’s reaction was simple. They either didn’t believe the brothers had flown or thought it was a fluke.

Great leaders are not dissuaded by naysayers. They are “internally defined” and believe in themselves despite what others say. The lack of support from others does not discourage them. They are driven by their passion and belief.

Stay True to Core Values

Despite the fame and financial comforts that accompanied their success, Wilbur and Orville stayed true to their practical Midwestern values of honesty, hard work, unpretentiousness and common sense. In June of 1909, over 4,000 spectators including The U.S. Senate gathered to watch the brothers’ latest plane go airborne.

Deciding the wind was too stiff for a safe flight, the brothers cancelled the demonstration and sent the throngs of people home without a word of apology. Upon leaving, one senator was heard to say, “I’m damned if I don’t admire their independence. We don’t mean anything to them, and there are a whole lot of reasons why we shouldn’t.”

Great leaders are intelligent and not afraid to make command decisions and stick to their guns. They are honest and decent people first and foremost. This does not mean they are weak. (The Wright brothers sued their competition nine times for patent infringement and won every lawsuit.) They are simply fair-minded and expect others to be the same.

Remember the Team

You may have heard of Orville and Wilbur Wright, but you most likely do not know about Katherine Wright and Charlie Taylor. Katherine was Wilbur and Orville’s sister and biggest fan. The only sibling to attend college, Katherine left her teaching job at the height of her brothers’ fame to join them in Europe and manage their affairs. She also nursed Orville back to health after his near fatal accident.

Charlie Taylor worked in the Dayton bicycle shop and was a mechanical genius, and a great deal of the credit for the design and building of their plane’s engines goes to Charlie. Both brothers acknowledged the contribution of these two.

Great leaders are willing to share the stage. They are thankful and grateful to the people who help make success possible. They make sure such people are recognized and rewarded for their contributions.

What about your leaders?

In your organization, do you dwell on problems or focus on solutions?

Is yours an organization led by people with a vision and the courage to stay true to that vision?

Are your leaders kind, decent, strong people?

Are you proud of the values practiced in your organization?

Do your leaders recognize and give credit to others?

Turns out the two bicycle mechanics from Dayton had a lot more to teach us than just how to fly…