3 Ways that Sales Leadership is Like Being an Airline Pilot

Sales Leadership

I recently took a flight for a business trip and watching the plane’s pilot getting into the cockpit reminded me that, believe it or not, there are actually a lot of similarities between the pilot’s job and mine.

Being a sales manager or small business owner is a lot like being an airline pilot – you have to manage contingencies, respond to emergencies, and keep the overall system running with the help of automation and by relying on your team.

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Here are a few reasons why sales leadership is like flying a plane:

Automation Helps, But …

People tend to think that planes can practically “fly themselves” with autopilot and the advanced technologies available today. But pilots still need to have many years of advanced training to be able to safely fly a plane.

There are a lot of complex situations and subtle nuances of piloting a plane that require human intuition and skills.

In the same way, even though today’s sales teams have access to lots of convenient automated tools like CRM systems and auto-reply e-mails, you still need the human touch of actual phone calls and real personal conversations.

If you rely too much on automation in your sales process, or your next sales deal might never “get off the ground.”

Manage Contingencies

Flying a plane has been described as “managing contingencies.” Pilots have to know how to handle lots of complex situations that might arise, whether it’s a weather delay to approach an airport, or a mechanical malfunction, or a worst-case scenario like a catastrophic engine failure.

Pilots have to know how to react quickly and safely to serve their passengers well and land their planes safely. In the same way, the sales business is often a matter of planning and reacting to various factors and occasional emergencies beyond your control.

Maybe the client gets cold feet and decides not to move forward on the deal, maybe a good lead turns out to be a bad fit for what your company sells, or maybe you have to make the tough decision to walk away from a deal altogether rather than get bogged down with the hassles and costs of implementing your solution with a client that won’t be easy to work with.

Being a sales leader and exhibiting sales leadership is not just about being at the controls when things are going smoothly. It’s about finding the resourcefulness and improvisational ability that difficult situations demand.

Delegate and Rely on Your Team

Airline pilots are not just technically skilled, they have to have great people skills, too. They work closely with flight attendants, copilots, and air traffic control personnel to quickly assess situations and relay information in a time-sensitive environment.

In the same way, sales teams need to have great collaboration and delegation. No matter how great you are at closing deals, your company’s performance (and your personal results) will be better if you know how to collaborate, draw upon the expertise of the people around you, and help other people on your team get better at their jobs, too.

Sales leadership is not just about being a great individual performer. It’s about building a winning team where everyone can share in the success.

Pilot Photo via Shutterstock


Al Davidson Al Davidson founded Strategic Sales & Marketing, Inc. in 1989, where he helps deliver B2B lead generation and appointment setting solutions for clients around the world. Under his leadership, the company has generated over 7 million sales leads, resulting in millions of dollars to his clients.

2 Reactions
  1. As a retired airline pilot I agree with your “managing contingencies” statement. I use to tell my students and First Officers that flying requires you to maintain a system of alternatives and when you let yourself run out of alternatives you become a statistic.

  2. Agree. You cannot depend on automation alone. Remember that you are still selling to real people so a human touch will always be necessary.

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