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  • Writer's pictureRichard "Pete" Hill, CDE

The Laws of Aerodynamics Apply To Leadership Too


The four forces of flight help make it possible for a jumbo jet to fly like a bird. These forces are collectively referred to as the Four Laws of Aerodynamics. The rules of aerodynamics explain how an airplane and rockets fly. Did you know that anything moving through the air reacts to aerodynamics. What Are the Four Forces of Flight?

The four forces of flight are weight, lift, drag and thrust. These forces can weigh an object down, move it up, make it faster and ultimately slow the object down. Let's begin with weight.


Thanks to gravity everything on earth has weight and consequently it is difficult to escape earth's gravitational pull. To fly, an aircraft needs a powerful force to help it overcome earth's gravitational pull. The object's weight determines how much force is necessary. Likewise in the workplace there are superstars and then there are employees derisively referred to as "Dead weight." The Law of Weight dictates superstars need much less force to motivate them than do their dead weight colleagues. Unskilled supervisors attempt to apply the same amount force irrespective of the demonstrated abilities of a superstar employee.

If pilots approached flying in this manner their planes will be grossly overweight or the engine will be to powerful for the aircraft. The trick for supervisors and pilots is knowing how much force to apply to get a plane airborne or an employee motivated. Just as the weight of an object controls how strong the push has to be, the attitude of an employee determines how forceful the supervisor must be, in a given situation. Remember, a kite needs a lot less upward push than a jumbo jet does and a superstar needs less attention than a poor performer.


The second aerodynamic law we will review is Lift. The push that allows an object to move vertically is lift. Whereas weight holds a plane down, lift provides an upward push. Lift is the force that is the opposite of weight. Everything that flies has more lift than weight. For instance a helicopter's rotors provide lift as does hot air for giant balloons. For airplanes lift is provided by the wings. The motion of rotors move the helicopter upward. Lift for an airplane comes from the airfoil shape of its wings. Airplanes' wings are curved on top and flatter on the bottom. That shape makes air flow over the top faster than under the bottom and this creates less air pressure on top of the wings. This condition makes the wing, and the airplane it's attached to, move up. Using curves to change air pressure is a trick used on many aircraft.

Effective and productive supervisors are like wings, hot air, and rotors, they provide employees a lift when needed. If an employee is consistently exceeding expectations, the supervisor recognizes this excellence verbally, financially and in any other manner acceptable to the exceptional employee. When an underperforming, but capable employee needs a lift, the supervisor knows just the right thing to say, or a specific training regiment to recommend for the purpose of providing the lift the underperformer needs, if the leader expects the poor performer to soar at new heights.


Drag slows an object down while making lift virtually impossible. You ever notice it much harder walking up stairs than down? That is the force of drag. Ever try running in water? The shape of an object also changes the amount of drag. Round surfaces have less drag than flat ones and narrow surfaces usually have less drag than wider ones. The more air that hits a surface, the more drag it makes.

Effective supervisors are familiar with the consequences of drag. These motivated leaders know their attitudes are reflected in the behavior of the workforce. If supervisors are unmotivated, act like bullies or have low emotional intelligence, they will undoubtedly drag down the motivation of the team and by extension, productivity will decrease and turnover will increase. It is important to note counterproductive employee behavior also acts as a drag on team productivity and motivation. Great leaders provide lift, excellent leaders, reduce weight, increase lift, and avoid drag. What are you doing?


The final aerodynamic force is thrust. The opposite of drag is thrust. Whereas drag holds a plane down, thrust propels a plane forward. To move forward efficiently, a plane must have more thrust than drag. In the workplace to increase productivity and team motivation leaders must provide thrust. Leaders provide thrust when they create harassment free environments, provide a sense of belonging, and are fair and impartial when recommending rewards and punishments. Inspirational leaders harness the power of thrust when they take time to know their team and look out for their well-being. Trust is evident when mentoring and career development programs are offered to all eligible employee. Most importantly, thrust is evident when the leader epitomizes

professionalism and is consider the standard bearer of the organization.

Final Thoughts

According to the laws of aerodynamics the bumblebee should be flightless. Yet everyday thousand of bumblebees take flight. Likewise many supervisors are told they can't motivate a certain team member, or senior leaders will not support a particular idea. It is during these trying times a supervisor must decide to lift the team above the naysaying, and thrust it toward greatness. To do otherwise is to become the dead weight that is dragging the team towards failure.

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