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How to Prepare Your Team for Any Situation, According to a Former Air Force Fighter Pilot

James D. Murphy shares how business owners can lead teams as effectively as the military does.

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BY Anna Meyer - 17 Oct 2018

How to Prepare Your Team for Any Situation, According to a Former Air Force Fighter Pilot

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Even long before he became an entrepreneur, James D. Murphy well knew what pressure feels like.

Prior to founding the consulting company Afterburner, Murphy was an Air Force pilot flying F-15s, one of the most sophisticated fighter jets of its time. He later became the 116th Fighter Wing's Chief of Training for the Georgia Air National Guard, where it was his job to keep 42 combat-trained fighter pilots ready to deploy worldwide within 72 hours.

Murphy says handling the pressure in those high-risk positions depended on being ready for anything that might happen. It's a lesson that's no less true for business leaders.


"Preparation is actually the key to flexibility," says Murphy, who will be speaking at the 2018 Inc. 5000 conference on October 17-19. "Every situation [in the Air Force] was high pressure, but I was ready for them because our planning process was so great, [as was] our briefing process." He notes that the intense training pilots underwent prepared them for any 'what if' situation--whether that was an emergency procedure or a unexpected twist in a dogfight.

Murphy's experience showed him there was opportunity to apply the military's training practices to businesses. In 1996 he founded Afterburner, and created a methodology called "Flawless Execution" that guides businesses to prepare the way the U.S. Air Force does. Afterburner has made the Inc. 5000 list of America's fastest-growing private companies five times.

"Businesses talk a lot about planning, and they plan towards things like top-line revenue," he says. "But they don't necessarily plan out the many actions that it actually takes to drive those numbers."

Here, Murphy shares four ways business owners can prepare and lead like an ace fighter pilot.

1. Hold both a briefing and a debriefing around every action
Murphy emphasizes the importance of holding a briefing before executing any plan, and to have the team actually repeat back to leadership what the committed plan is. That keeps the team aligned with the same ideas and focus. After the tasks are executed, hold a debriefing to help the team close the gaps between the expectations they had and what actually occurred. "Look at your profits and losses," he says. "Understand why they occurred and iterate those lessons learned into another planning cycle as quickly as you can."

2. Invite everyone you can to the table
Good leaders are inclusive during the planning process. "They don't plan behind closed doors and spring their plan on the organization," Murphy explains. "They include as much of the organization as possible in the planning. This inspires the team." He notes that if others on your team can understand the bigger picture, the entire group functions more effectively.

3. Set an example by being vulnerable and honest
Murphy notes that leaders set the tone for how honest and forthcoming the rest of the team will be during briefings. "Let everybody know that it is a psychologically safe environment," he says. "And the reason we're going to debrief in a very truthful manner is to share lessons learned for the benefit of the team," The point that everyone starts being transparent is when the most effective preparation happens.

4. Create a "High Definition Destination"
"You can't predict the future," Murphy says, "but you can certainly design the one you'd like as an organization." He suggests setting expectations around your goals as specifically as possible, creating what he calls a 'High Definition Destination' of that goal. That way, you can effectively communicate and align the team under the same goals--all in high-definition detail.

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