Leadercast Live 2018: Carey Lohrenz


In her talk at Leadercast Live 2018, Carey said that identifying and staying aware of our purpose—whether it’s found in a fighter jet or a boardroom—is essential to success. It’s critical that we keep our purpose at the forefront of our minds, pursuing it relentlessly.

“If you lose sight of the most important work you should be doing, you lose the fight,” she said. 

We cannot allow any distractions, including the opinions of others or the potential for failure, deter us from our mission. When we’re afraid to fail, we miss valuable opportunities. “Plus, facing challenges builds confidence,” said Carey.

We will all experience setbacks somewhere along the way, but Carey pointed out that it’s what we do after failing that determines where we will end up. 

Carey’s Game-Changing Thoughts:

- A great attitude doesn’t guarantee your success, but a negative attitude kills your ability to adapt. 

- The people who tell you that you can’t are usually the ones most afraid that you will.

- Don’t be bold and courageous all the time. It’s exhausting. 

- A good leader makes decisions for the best interest of the team, not for their own best interest.

Watch the video to hear Carey's full talk from Leadercast Live 2018, and click HERE to download a printable PDF of these takeaways. 

Hoo, hoo, all right. Yeah, all right. Good morning. Good morning. How is everybody this morning? Whoo, all fired up, right? All right. Well, as Tripp just said, my name is Carey Lohrenz, and I was one of the very first women to be assigned to fly the F-14 on and off of aircraft carriers. So, I spent about...yeah, I spent about 10 years planning, executing, and debriefing complex missions.

In that time, I was fortunate to be able to work with some of the world's most outstanding teammates and some that provided coaching opportunities as well, myself on more than one occasion, I promise you. But no different than you, we had to figure out how do you achieve extraordinary wins? How do you achieve the impossible, the impossible things that maybe your boss, your family, your friends, are asking you to do when you have a really limited amount of time and a finite amount of resources and budgets?

So, what I'd like to do with you today is share with you some of those lessons learned really from my journey of being grown up as a small town girl in the mid-West, getting into the cockpit of a $45 million fighter aircraft. Now, some of these lessons learned are really high-performance lessons that worked not only in high-performance aircraft, but what I found to also be successful in Fortune 1, Fortune 10, Fortune 500 companies as well, and those ideas of courage, tenacity, integrity. And then really, how do you get your team aligned on that individual leadership level? How do you set a vision for your team? How do you get them to take action? And as importantly, what do you do when stuff goes sideways? Because if you haven't taken that concrete block to the face yet, well, good for you. But it's coming, right? So, we need to figure out, how do we build resiliency not only in ourselves so we can lead others effectively, but also build resiliency within our teams? But what I'd like to do is take a second to invite you into my office, into the cockpit of a $45 million fighter jet.

Now, this is an environment that is not just mentally challenging, but it's physically challenging as well. And why is that? Most people don't realize that as Navy fighter pilots flying on and off of aircraft carriers, is actually only part of our job. Unfortunately, we have to have a real full grown-up job just like you. So, what does that mean? That means that in addition to being a subject matter expert in the fighter pilot world, as soon as we show up in our squadrons, we're responsible for running squadrons that have 250 to 300 people with assets valued at right around $1 billion. 

So, I'll show up at a squadron and suddenly get dropped into an unfamiliar role, say, as an educational services officer where I'm responsible for figuring out how on earth do I lead 250 to 300 sailors and marines. And then, after I get a little bit comfortable with that, maybe four, five months later, now I might find myself as an assistant maintenance officer or an admin officer, or a safety officer.

So, we're constantly feeling uncomfortable and like we never know enough. At the same time, I'm responsible for that fighter pilot stuff. So, I may go from being in my third position inside the nine months, where in that same day, I have to go to a different room where I plan my mission. I go into yet another room where I brief my team, i.e. my wingman, and then I go into yet another room where you pull on about 35 pounds of flight gear. I go up to that flight deck, get into my airplane, and I am launched off the front end of that aircraft carrier going from zero to over 200 miles an hour in just under 2 seconds flat. And within...I know. I'll let you kinda think about that for a second. That acceleration is a little sporty. And within a couple of minutes, so we're usually going about 450 to 500 miles an hour all the while leading 2, 4, 6, 8, sometimes 20 wingmen safely to a target, and then back to that aircraft carrier again. Now, why is that mentally challenging?

Well, we would think that once we get into that cockpit we are now in our safe space, right? Nobody can bother us. Nobody can touch us. But now, we're surrounded by about 350 switches and dials. And I've three different radios that people can be talking to me at the same time on different frequencies. So, I'm having to synthesize a lot of different information that is oftentimes conflicting or I'm still expected to make the best decision that allows us to achieve our mission objective. At the same time, I'm operating on this three-dimensional battlefield in space where, clearly, we are trying not to hit each other, right, or the ground, or anything attached to the ground. Now, I know that sounds like table stakes or like, "Hey, fighter pilots. Don't hit each other, okay?" But there's a very strong physical element to this as well.

So, for example, we're all sitting here and we're experiencing 1G or one times the force of gravity. So, if we weigh 200 pounds at 1G, you should still weigh 200 pounds. That's the magic of science. But when I'm in my airplane and I pull back on that stick, I can experience six to eight times the force of gravity, which means my body literally goes in an instant from feeling like it weighs 200 pounds-ish to instantly weighing 1,600 pounds. That is like trying to, you know, think and fly, and talk, and make decisions with an elephant sitting in your lap, crushing you. This probably how you feel on a daily basis sometimes, right?

At the same time, all of the blood is pulling from your brain and it's settling in your lower body cavity. And there's so much pressure on your vascular system. It oftentimes feels like your toenails are gonna blow off, which is not in the job description, I promise you. But as long as we haven't passed out because there's no blood left in our brain, then we get to come back and land on the aircraft carrier.

Now, landing on the aircraft carrier is amazing because every single landing is like a controlled car crash. Because in my airplane...I know good times. In my airplane, when I'm coming to board, I'm going about 160, 165 miles an hour as I cross the backend to that deck. I slam down on the deck and come to a complete stop in just under 1.2 seconds. So, that deceleration force alone is enough to make it feel like the arms are gonna pull out of your sockets and everything is gonna fall apart.

But as you can imagine, as much as I would like to think I have the most important job in the aircraft carrier because I am a fighter pilot after all and some of them think the world does revolve around them, it actually takes an entire high-performing team to get this job done. We cannot do this job by ourselves. And operating on an aircraft carrier is an amazing experience. Every aircraft carrier has about 5,000 people on board. And yet, every 9 months, 50% of that population turns over. So, if you extrapolate that, what does that mean? That means every 18 months, you have an entirely new crew trying to get a job done in the world's most dangerous industrial work site.

And an added leadership challenge to this, does anybody know what the average age is on an aircraft carrier? Twenty-four? Twenty-seven? Eighteen? Close. It's 19 to 19-and-a-half years old. Yeah. If that doesn't suck the air out of your lungs today, I got nothing, right? I'm done. Tapping out. So, imagine, from a leadership challenge of not only figuring out how to lead yourself, how are you gonna get this job done with an average age of 19 to 19-and-a-half? Well, we're able to do this with good leadership. Those people who can do this effectively, we can do this because we understand what our purpose is. And on this aircraft carrier, there's only one most important thing, and that is simply the safe launching and recovering of airplanes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Everything else, it's just details.

Now, is there important stuff? Of course, there is. However, the biggest indicator of your ability to be successful on an individual level as well as a team performance level is you knowing what your purpose is. This is going to be one of your biggest leadership challenges on your leadership journey, whether you are just starting out, you're in college, you're in middle school, or you've been at this for 45 years and you're still trying to figure it out, right? Understanding and figuring out what your purpose is will be the biggest determinant factor on whether or not you will be successful for the long term and figuring out can you show up with a great attitude.

And I'm not talking about...when I talk about having a great attitude, please do not think, all of a sudden, I mean you need to show up every day and be like, "Oh, I'm so excited to be here. This is the best place ever, right? Hmp, #blessed. I love this place." I mean, we are blessed. However, if you're doing that, you're kinda driving the rest of us crazy, right? Hashtags only as necessary.

But the reason I say having a great attitude and knowing what your purpose is, is so important, is that a great attitude doesn't guarantee your success, but a negative attitude kills your ability to adapt. And that is critical. The people who are able to do this, who understand what the purpose is, can get dropped into any area of an organization and get people aligned very, very quickly so that you get to where you want to go faster.

In my world, speed is life. In your world, the same thing applies. No matter where you are, whether you're a business owner, you're a manager, you're just starting off, we need to be able to operate very, very quickly. And having these understandings of what it is we're supposed to focus on, yeah, understanding...you know, focusing on what matters, understanding what our purpose is, and then operating and executing with discipline is really what allowed the Navy to take what I would say are common people like myself and in a very short period of time, have us performing at an operationally high level.

Now, one of the things that we used to always say before we would walk out to our airplane is, if you lose sight, you lose the fight. If you lose sight of the most important work you should be doing, you're guaranteed to lose the fight. It doesn't matter how great your strategy is. It doesn't matter how beautiful your mission statement is. If in the day-to-day activity you lose sight of the most important work you should be doing, you're guaranteed to lose the fight. And what happens? We all start off with great intentions every morning. We don't show up hoping our ID card doesn't swipe, right? We're like, "Okay. Today, I'm gonna try to do a good job." But by the end of the day, holly molly, we're pulled in so many different directions. These goats are gonna eat our entire tree, right, if we don't figure out what the most important work is that we should be doing. So, figure out what that is for you.

Every day, I always tell the executives that I coach, "Take a stack of Post-it notes and a fat Sharpie marker. Write down your top three things, not a to-do list, but your top three most important, most valuable things that you should be focusing on, and go hard on those."

Now, when you think about kind of where I started, I was drawn towards the Navy because of its values. I love the fact that they focused on mission before self. So, I ended up going through the Navy's Aviation Officer Candidate School. And it's a 16-week program that's essentially a metamorphosis where you wake up to about 5 of these lovely young gentlemen every morning. Your mattress is out in the yard. You're doing mountain climbers in somebody else's pile of vomit. So, you're completely challenging your life choices, right? But this program was really designed to put an enormous amount of stress and pressure on you to figure out, will you be able to be flexible? Can you adapt? Can you overcome any obstacle that they put in front of you?

And what they really wanna discover, too, are who are those people on an individual level, under enormous amounts of stress and duress, will still make good judgments? But more importantly, who will make a good judgment that's in the best interest of the team when it has become clearer it is no longer in your personal best interest? Because that is a lot harder to do and that tests your integrity. And when you're faced with the unknown or you're overwhelmed, or you're given too much information or not enough information, or you're told "I don't know what you should do. Just start going," will you take bold and aggressive leadership steps? Because over the course of time, the one thing that holds out to be true is that when we're enveloped in uncertainty, only those people who continue taking action are the ones who thrive and survive.

Now, I don't want you to think this training was all bad. It wasn't, you know. We got to do a lot of interesting things like go through evolutions where they did what was called advanced water survival, which actually means that we were gonna try to drown you on a daily basis. But that's a whole different story. But they wanted to see would we be able to, again, no matter what they throw in front of us, could we survive? Could we surface? When you had gallons of salty water pummeling your sinuses that felt like hot poker sliding into your brain, would you still make a good decision? 

And all of this is to get you to the point where they knew only a small percentage of us would go on to fly fighters on and off of aircraft carriers. And what we can't afford to have happen is, essentially, when my asset is strapped into that $45 million asset and it's at night, and I'm on fire a thousand miles offshore with no other place to land, would that be the time that suddenly I said, "Holy Michael, I can't do this. This is too hard." Right? Because the fear of failure is one of the most universally paralyzing things we all suffer from, fighter pilots included.

And what happens is that when we're afraid to fail, we end up passing up very valuable opportunities simply because we're afraid to fail. And what do most of us do? We go like this, right? More like, "Oh, I'm not going first. I'm gonna let them go first and see how it works for them," right? But while we're waiting, we're actually putting ourselves more at risk because somebody else is being brave enough, is being bold enough to go first because they know they're going to figure it out. So, don't be afraid to fail. It's just what you do with the afterwards that ultimately will define who you are and who you will become.

Now, as I started my journey to earning my wings and getting into the cockpit of a fighter jet, it was extraordinarily challenging. They did not let women fly in combat at this time. And so, there was a lot of pushback, you know, "Oh, why do you wanna do this? Why do women wanna fly?" You know, there is math involved. It's hard, right? But I knew I wanted to do this. And so, I was almost done with this first stage of training when I ended up running into the biggest bump in the road. And I got called into my commanding officer's office and was told, "You know what? They haven't lifted the law that prohibits women from flying in combat, so there's no room for you left in the Navy. You can either get out of the Navy or you can go to a non-flying job. Which do you want?" Well, none of those options. Those are terrible options, right? This is my dream. So, I just said, "Hey, I need a little bit of time to think about that," you know and they kinda grumbled, "Rrrr," like old people can do.

And I went back into a briefing room for a little bit and I thought to myself, "You know, the only reason I just have that conversation was that I dared to show up different. I dared to show up female." And I wasn't okay with that. So, I went back into the commanding officer's office, knocked on the door, walked in, and just said, "Sir, with all due respect, I don't wanna get out of the Navy and I don't wanna go to a non-flying job. We need to find a third way." You would have thought a straight line went and hit that man. He flew back so fast. His face contorted. And I just said, "Thank you very much for your time," and I left, right? Because you do not need to be courageous all the time. You just need to throw it in there and run, right?

Oh, my gosh, all these people will tell you, "Be bold. Be courageous all the time." No. It's exhausting. You can't do that. That's nonsense, little tiny bits, little bits. And it was a good thing that I did because about a week and a half later, they brought me back in and said, "All right, we're gonna keep you here as a flight instructor assuming that Congress will lift the law that prohibits women from flying." And just about a month later, the day my class was selecting was actually the day that the Secretary of Defense lifted the law that prohibited women from flying in combat. So, yeah, timing, right?

So, this is about having that ability to stay focused on those short-term goals while you're looking at the long-term goal when people are telling you, "This is not how we do this here," right? "Your dream is not worthy. That goal is never achievable." My dad used to always tell me, "You know what? I just want you to remember the people who tell you, you can't are usually the ones most afraid that you will." So, go for it, right? And this is understanding that you have the ability to write your own story. You have the ability to stay greedy and believe that the dream that you have and the person that you have the potential to be, the leader that you can be, is on that side of possibility. But you need to be able to go through those things that scare you and have the courage and the strength to face them, and then you will start to develop the confidence.

So, I'm on my way to fly this amazing aircraft and I am under a microscope, right, because there's nobody else around. And I realize everything that they tried to teach us right from day one of flight school is going to come into play, and that is you have to focus on the most important things. And for us, we always said it was aviate, navigate, communicate.

First of all, always fly your airplane. It doesn't matter if you're on fire, things are thrown at you, whatever. Just fly the airplane. Second, get it pointed in the direction you need to go. Just start heading that way. And the third thing, tell people what you're doing, right? Three things, keep it simple. We have to clarify the complex so people can get their jobs done. And the reason we had to do this is that Navy and Marine Corps fighter pilots are the only aviators in the world that will dare to land high-speed fighters on and off of aircraft carriers. It's the most dangerous thing that you can do in aviation, to land on an aircraft carrier at night.

So, I'm gonna share with you a short video that gives you a little insight into what it looks like in my world 50% of the time. Take a look.

So, that gives you a little insight into what it's like in our world 50% of the time. And I think it's critical that you see that piece of it because oftentimes, people think, "Oh, my gosh. Fighter pilots, you don't get scared about anything, right?" Like, we have some magical exoskeleton that protects us from being afraid. And yeah, you can see this. Here he is 15 minutes later still like this, right, still shaking. But how do we do that? How do we operate through that fear on an individual level? Well, you can see one of the things. Well, we use a little food, right? We're eating some popcorn to shove that vomit down. But everybody in there except for one guy who's a squadron duty officer is actually gonna go out and fly into that inky, pitch black darkness next.

But what do we do? Even though we're competitive on an individual level, we stay together, right? We're curious. We keep learning. We think, "Okay. What's the most important thing?" Even though our mind is telling us "I wanna stay up here. It's safe up here," right, we go forward. We feel that fear anyway.

And this is going to be my ask for you. This is the challenge for you. Flying F-14s on and off the aircraft carrier isn't the thing that's going to make you fearless. Having the strength and the courage to show up and the tenacity to keep going when everybody is telling you all the odds are against you, that's what matters. And if you do just one thing, one thing every day for the next 30 days that scares you, that puts a pit in your stomach or a lump in your throat, I promise you, you will not only start gaining more courage and confidence, but you will inspire everybody around you to step up and also start thinking, "Why not me? What if it's actually possible for me as well?"

So, thank you so much for your time today. It has been amazing being with you. Thank you.
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Carey Lohrenz

Carey Lohrenz knows what it takes to win in one of the highest pressure, extreme environments imaginable: in the cockpit at Mach 2.

As the first female F-14 Tomcat Fighter Pilot in the U.S. Navy, having flown missions worldwide ...

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