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5 Points of wisdom the Wright brothers can offer about leading big change

Learn from these Fathers of Flight how to confront your challenges, and your own dream just might take flight.


Patti Johnson, Entrepreneur, 24 February 2016  Share  0 comments  Print


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Some people are so passionate and dedicated to innovation, they seem destined to change the world. Clearly, Wilbur and Orville Wright, the fathers of flight, were two such world-changers.

David McCullough’s recent book, The Wright Brothers, describes how the brothers overcame setbacks, competition and naysayers – not unlike the challenges many entrepreneurs face.

With more than a little intestinal fortitude, the Wrights fearlessly followed their vision all the way to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and history's first successful flight of a fixed-wing aircraft.

Related: Corne’ Krige’s leadership insights

The following five lessons from the Wright brothers’ experiences provide valuable strategies for entrepreneurs looking to create change today:

1. Early experts might not be experts

Orville and Wilbur’s earliest models were based largely on the research of the top thinkers of the time. Through their own experimentation and the repeated failures of their competitors, they realised many of these early “experts” were dead wrong.

When venturing into new terrain, it’s OK to look to the “experts” for ideas. But it’s important to test and validate information in changing conditions rather than assuming that it is fact. Build upon the work of those before you, but use your own ideas to make yourself the new expert in your field.

2. Nothing replaces rolling up your sleeves

Wilbur Wright once said, “You [can] sit on a fence and watch the birds, but if you really wish to learn [to fly], you must mount a machine and [learn] by actual trial.”

It was that hands-on approach that set this duo apart from their competitors. While others sponsored innovation, the Wright brothers personally tried and tested hundreds of flight conditions, materials and prototypes to get a firsthand feel for their machines.

They became experts through trial and error, knowing firsthand what worked, and why. Be close enough to your work to learn something from each experiment, prototype and failure.

This also sets you up as a continuous learner – an essential habit for innovation. Paul Allen of Microsoft has often noted the lessons he and Bill Gates learned from their first piece of technology, Traf-O-Data. Allen noted, “I have made my share of business mistakes, but Traf-O-Data remains my favourite mistake because it confirmed to me that every failure contains the seeds of your next success.”

3. Combine self-reliance with smart advisors

Pick your mentors, advisors and team members with strategic intent.

The Wright brothers became experts on early flight, yet they knew their limitations. They had advisors to help with gaining sponsorship and funding, finding the best location for testing and even the construction of the first flying machine.

Recognise that it’s not about whom you enjoy talking with the most, but the value a person can bring to your work.

Effective leaders encourage these multiple perspectives through collaboration, team input and new ideas (and relying less on hierarchical structuring).

4. Be persistent while constantly adapting

The Wright brothers had plenty of reasons to quit. Their pursuits survived mockery from critics, thousands of revisions, hundreds of test flights and broken bones. But the brothers – determined to succeed – constantly reassessed their progress based on their results.

Setbacks will happen. But rather than focusing on your failures, learn from them, adjust your methods and regroup tomorrow. Implementing an incremental approach can help guide this process and limit negative effects from sweeping decisions. By creating a succession of short-term plans, your team can evolve as the situation becomes clearer.

5. Don’t be threatened by the competition

The Wright brothers knew other teams were trying to achieve the same goal. They didn’t concern themselves with their competition unless they believed they could learn from their work.

By immersing themselves so completely in their own plans and ideas, they developed a unique expertise that created an advantage over all of the others.

Related: Bisila Bokoko on shifting your perspective

Focus on what you can influence and control. Learn from your competition when that's relevant, but don’t gauge your success on everyone else’s progress.

The Wright brothers’ lessons on work ethic, perseverance and constant experimentation are as relevant today as they were in the early 1900s. Their example can continue to shape the minds of dreamers, creators and leaders, much as they did more than a hundred years ago.

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About the author


Patti Johnson, Entrepreneur

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and organisational development-consulting firm in Irving, Texas. She is the author of Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and in Life. Previously Johnson was a senior executive at Accenture.

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