What the Business Community Can Learn From the U.S. Air Force

Two trailblazing women in the U.S. Air Force have much to teach business people about some of the most important issues they face: risk management, decision making, balance, team building, and leadership.

Gen. Maryanne Miller is a four-star general and the only woman among the 41 four-star officers in the U.S. military; she’s also the first female pilot to achieve that rank. Maj. Rachael Winiecki is the first female test pilot to fly the F-35 fighter jet, the most sophisticated military aircraft in the world. Those jobs may sound far away from what most business people do every day, but as Miller and Winiecki explained at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, many of their concerns are similar. It’s just that the stakes are often higher.

“Our focus is on risk management and decision making,” said Winiecki about her job. When you’re flying a new plane at 1,200 mph, the risks can be higher and the decisions faster than what most managers face. But the objectives are familiar. “We try to mitigate risk,” she said. “Our responsibility is to ensure that the planes will meet the needs of the customer and the customer will have confidence in them.”

Yes, in the Air Force they talk about customers.

Miller doesn’t fly planes anymore, though that’s how she began her rise. She oversees the Air Mobility Command, the operation that moves the Air Force’s people and goods around the world, refuels aircraft in the air, and “manages operations in every country where we land,” she said. She’s also in charge of Air Force One and the broader task of moving the president, vice president, and members of Congress. As a reservist for much of her career, the only reservist ever to achieve four-star rank, she ran a restaurant—Our Place in Rehoboth Beach, Del. “So I get what you do,” she told the audience of business people.

Asked to name the biggest challenges they deal with in their leadership roles, Miller and Winiecki cited issues that every business manager confronts. Miller said, “Balance. My faith is very important to me, and I didn’t know how I’d find time for that.” She manages, but it’s a constant struggle. Winiecki’s biggest obstacle is “building your team—taking the extra few seconds to engage someone and talk with them and get them to understand where you’re coming from and to understand the needs of your customers.”

Both officers also identified their No. 1 piece of leadership advice.

Miller: “Humility is the most important thing. It’s all about others, not yourself.”

Winiecki: “Flying is a great equalizer.”

As the full meaning of that statement sank in, these two women who have broken significant barriers in the Air Force high-fived each other.

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