Optimizing Your Performance in High Stakes Situations With Naval Test Pilot James Licata

If you want to be a better financial advisor, learn how to land a jet plane on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean in the middle of the night.

Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit …

But I really do believe that the top advisors of the future will be those who are open to a wide variety of insights that come from a wide variety of experiences you and I might never have. Talking to and learning from people outside of our field can really get our gears turning. Suddenly you’re approaching challenges and opportunities from different angles and finding creative ways to deal with the stresses of running a business. You’re also equipping yourself with new ways of thinking that will help you make long-lasting, indispensable relationships with clients.

That’s why I was excited to talk to Lieutenant James Licata on a recent podcast. James is a Naval test pilot who’s often in high-pressure, high-stakes, life-or-death situations. I wanted to discuss how he handles those environments, and how those of us with two feet firmly on the ground can adapt similar strategies to perform under the pressures we face running our businesses.

     

Key Insights from Lieutenant James Licata

Make stress smaller.  

James Licata started his military career. as you might expect, with basic training. A difficult and challenging experience, to be sure, but much more positive than the tortuous hazing routine we might imagine from watching too many war movies.

“It’s definitely not hazing, by any stretch,” James remembers. “It’s more of an indoctrination year, to break you down as an individual and then build you back up as a team member. It’s a couple of months of intensive physical training throughout the day plus a bunch of different indoctrination events. Every aspect of your day is controlled with only about about 30 minutes of free time. You have people yelling at you all the time. You can never do anything fast enough.”

Exhaustion, no free time, lack of sleep, angry people yelling at you … Sounds like a typical Monday morning at the office!

OK, OK, I’m exaggerating again. But not THAT much, right? Running a business can be physically and emotionally taxing, especially during the early years or during bear markets.

James had an ah-ha moment that helped him adapt to the rigors of initial training. Instead of telling himself, “I only have to do this for X more days,” he trained himself to focus on the current challenge, and not all the ones that would immediately follow it.

“If you look at a big challenge in its totality, it’s going to be demoralizing,” James says. “You don’t want to think like that. Better to approach it from an individual standpoint of, all right, let’s just get through this meal and then worry about the future problems later. Essentially, you break things into smaller, more bite-size segments or phases. That’s a lesson that transcended the Naval Academy.”

Embrace “the gouge.”

Whether you’re running a business or sitting in a cockpit, it can feel very lonely when you’re the only one in the big chair, the only one with his hand on the controls.

Now imagine that chair is in a helicopter, and the helicopter is submerged upside down, and you are tightly strapped in!

This is a real-life exercise James Licata and his test pilot classmates had to engage in. The purpose of this controlled training exercise was “The experience of unstrapping yourself and extricating yourself from this underwater death trap. What they tell you is when you start going under water, take your last deep breath, and then remain strapped in until all violent motion stops. What do I do? The instant my feet hit the water, I unclick my harness, and all of a sudden, the thing is tumbling around me. Somehow, by the grace of God, I found my way out.”

I think if I was in James’ seat I probably would have ejected instantly too! But this would be an example of not listening to what Navy pilots call “the gouge” – critical information that isn’t always written down, but is instead passed down as accepted wisdom from pilots who have been there, done that, and want to help other pilots manage stressful situations as well. “Taking good advice from well-informed people who have done this before you is worth its weight in gold,” James says.

When your own business is going topsy-turvy, it can be helpful to turn to your own “gouge.” Do you have other CEOs or advisors whose advice is golden? Are you working with a CEO coach who has guided you through choppy waters before? A business partner who can share the load?

Fly the chair.

Or maybe your “gouge” can be as simple as removing yourself from the problem, closing your eyes, and visualizing a path out of a pressure situation that’s worked for you in the past.

“When you learn to fly a jet aircraft, they talk about ‘chair flying,’” James says. “In the sports psychology world, you’d probably call it visualization. That right there, I think, is the number one key to success: the ability to think through, ahead of time, an event.”

James knows pilots who will go so far as to sit in a cockpit and fake throttle and stick movements for an upcoming flight. James’ own process is more mental:

“I like to just sit somewhere, even for a little while, without distraction, and essentially go through a play-by-play in my head, as to what I’m going to do. Not just once you get in the aircraft, but from minute one of preparing for a brief, stepping through the entire flight brief, and then the entire preflight of the aircraft, your actual mission, and then afterwards, thinking through a logical way to debrief the event, which, in a lot of cases, is just as important to actually pull out all the learning points on a particular mission.”

James even thinks through potential hazards like weather conditions or new equipment faltering. You might think this is dangerous “negative thinking,” but in fact James finds just the opposite is true.

“It’s a confidence builder,” he says. “If I haven’t flown in a while, usually the night prior, I will just mentally break out a list and step through certain emergency procedures. It’s not wishing this to happen, but invariably, if you’ve got these procedures fresh in your mind, you’re staying on top of those critical memory items. You are spring-loaded to deal with them in a measured, controlled way, and execute the proper steps.”

Do what you know works.

Surprisingly, James Licata says that worst-case scenario procedures are among the few steps that pilots actually memorize. Like many successful business leaders, aviators rely on checklists, both for simple daily processes, like a safety check, and high-pressure tasks, like landing a jet on an aircraft carrier.

That particular piloting task is an interesting example of balancing gut reactions with best practices. You might think that a pilot slows down a plane on a carrier runway, the way you park a car. But James’ checklist says otherwise: he has to be at full power as he lands, even as the situation in front of his eyes strongly suggests otherwise.

“It’s essentially counter intuitive,” James says. “They say, ‘Fly the ball all the way to touchdown.’ You basically want to be making continuous fine adjustments to your height all the way until your wheels are actually on the deck, and you’re hopefully engaging a wire and stopping. If you didn’t do that, you’d run the risk of sailing off the edge of the boat and into the water.”

Falling back on the processes that have kept your business high, dry, and growing in the past can often lead you through the latest pressure cooker.

But what happens when the weather changes, equipment fails, or the mission itself changes on the fly?

As business owners, we’re constantly dealing with new challenges: technology, unpredictable markets, competition popping up when and where you least expect it. Some of these challenges will require us to calmly work through our checklists and keep executing essential tasks that are building towards our bigger goals. And some of these challenges will require new, outside-the-box thinking to keep us cool, collected, and on-point. Knowing what mode of thinking will get you through a specific problem is yet another challenge. The good news is the whole process gets a little bit easier every time you’ve gone through it.

“Experience is what you have right after you need it,” James says. “Building that base of knowledge and things you’ve seen. Like anything in life, once you’ve done something once or twice it’s immediately vastly less intimidating than the first time you’ve done it. Once you’ve just done it at least once, all of a sudden it’s a whole different ballgame. In a good way.”

How do you perform under pressure?

Waiting until you find yourself in a high-stakes situation is too late to be prepared for it. Here are three key points from Lieutenant James Licata that you can work on right now.

  1. Focus on the here and now. Rather than get bogged down by what might happen next week or next month, focus on what’s happening right now and get through that.
  2. Learn what works. Wisdom from elders is sometimes written down and sometimes passed down. Embrace it all.
  3. Visualize the process and what could go wrong. It’s great to visualize success, but it’s just as important to visualize what could go wrong and how you will respond to it.

We don’t want to avoid high-stakes situations in our life because often times they can be good for us. They challenge us and force us to become our best. Instead, we want to prepare for them so we can face them with confidence.

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Steve Sanduski, CFP®

Steve Sanduski, CFP® is a FinTech entrepreneur, New York Times bestselling author, podcast host, and international speaker.
By | 2018-10-09T08:54:56+00:00 October 8th, 2018|

One Comment

  1. Mary A. Moore October 11, 2018 at 8:40 pm - Reply

    What a great presentation of tried and true guiding principles in managing for success, testing and adapting to changing conditions and solid preparation in any specific endeavor, or just life in general— with plenty of edge of your seat excitement thrown in! I really enjoyed this podcast.

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