5 for 5 blog – 5 Great Take Aways from “The Wright Brothers”

10 Jan


Good morning everyone.

I read a lot of books. Honestly, it is one of the habits I have picked up later in my career, which as one of this week’s 5 for 5 articles talks about is helping to “expand my thinking, not just my skill set”. But often, I just drop notes into a post about books I have read, which is good and ideally helps tie content together. However, for a while I have wanted to dive deeper into specific books that inspire me….hopefully this will be the first of many.

“The Wright Brothers” is an amazing story of ingenuity, perseverance, humility, curiosity, and success. Written by David McCullough, it chronicles the path of the two brothers, Orville and Wilbur, from their early days making bicycles in Dayton to a vindicating day at Le Mans, France where the first public flight shut down naysayers and transformed the world. Here are 5 ideas, thoughts, takeaways that inspired me:

Curiosity is a powerful ally

  • The Wright Brothers had no business exploring flight. They had no college degrees. While there is a US Air Force base in Dayton today, none of that existed at the time they began to become curious about the idea of flight. They were from a modest background in Ohio. But they were curious. It was that curiosity that allowed them to build up their bicycle manufacturing business that provided the foundation (mechanically and financially) to explore flight. It was curiosity that inspired the research and countless tests to optimize their design of “The Flyer” that allows us to travel all over the world today.
  • Take away: Certainly the connected world we live in today allows us to check Google any time a question comes up in a dinner conversation. But the brothers’ curiosity was something much deeper. It was a fascination with the possible and challenge of doing it. You may not be trying to develop manned flight, but don’t ignore curiosity. Your curiosity may point to a problem to be solved or a new idea waiting to hatch.

Grit is a trait we all need

  • To say no one thought that manned flight was possible would be an understatement. It was openly blasted in newspapers around the world that the idea of pursuing flight was a lost cause. News outlets celebrated failures (not in a good way). As mentioned before, there were no technical manuals on how to build a flying machine. There were no schematics. In fact, some of the data that was published on wing cross sections they found to be made up. The conditions at Kitty Hawk could be almost as bad as the press some times: horrible storms, plagues of mosquitoes, and long stays away from their home could have shut them down. But in spite of all of this, they persevered. When test flights crashed and damaged the flyer, they took the extra time to study and rebuild, and ultimately try again.
  • Take away: Grit (perseverance + passion) is a muscle we must strengthen. It took years for the Wright Brothers to attempt the first flight at the Outer Banks. During which time, they endured setbacks and extreme negative input from every direction. Today, we have a choice to make when we embark on projects we know can make a difference and we would do well to learn from the example of the Wright Brothers that steady focused plodding towards a work you believe in will pay off in time.

Humility is a key foundation

  • The Wright Brothers had no desire for fame, which was part of the reason that Kitty Hawk was such an attractive location (far away from the media). While other inventors of the day sought the limelight and press, the brothers were reluctant to engage in publicity. Reluctantly, Orville travelled to Chicago, only after significant prodding from his brother and sister to present to and engineering organization. For over a year, in France, he avoided the media, choosing rather to focus on readiness for his demonstration flight at Le Mans.
  • Take away: As leaders we need to constantly challenge ourselves around WHY we do WHAT we do. Is it for notoriety and recognition or do we hope to make a difference in the lives of our teams?

Don’t “go it” alone

  • Much has been written of the lone inventor coming up with revolutionary idea. More often than not, you find it was really partners or teams that get great ventures off the ground. The brothers’ relationship with each other, their family, and close friends was an important part of their journey. The book discusses the countless letters sent back and forth from Dayton to Kitty Hawk and the US to France, and vice versa. Unfortunately, Orville and Wilbur neither had social media nor email to allow rapid communications. So they wrote. They wrote to share their progress, their frustrations, and their encouragement. They would send hand written letters with the frequency that most people post to Facebook. Those connections sustained them during months in testing on the Outer Banks and nearly a year away from each other while Orville was in France.
  • Take away: There is a proverb that says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Leadership is often described as “lonely”. But “lonely” is a choice, and perhaps a selfish one at that. We have team members, peers and mentors, that we can turn to in times of trials and who can help motivate and challenge us on our own journey.

Research and preparation are the basis of any great work

  • One of the things that struck me was the depth of research the brothers went to in order to explore and ultimately prove flight was possible. They wrote to the Smithsonian to ask for any and all published literature on flight at that time, including birds. They wrote extensively to weather outlets to determine just the right place to conduct the experiments. The brothers tested their ideas constantly, even building their own wind tunnel. The entire book itself is worth admiring for the research that must have gone into documenting the lives of Orville and Wilbur.
  • Takeaway: In our own projects and initiatives, are we truly investing the time upfront to listen to clients? To truly study the problem we are trying to solve or the idea we are trying to launch? Are we investing the time in the study of conditions and data to check our biases and test our understanding? The focus of both the brothers and Mr. McCullough challenged my perspective on the projects I am looking to embark on this year. Preparation never goes out of style.

“The Wright Brothers” was one of three books I had a chance to read over the holidays and of the three was my favorite. Again a wonderful piece historically….an inspiring work for leaders and creatives of all kinds. I highly recommend it.

Here are this week’s 5 for 5 articles:

Where There’s a Will, There’s an Anyway – by Bob Chapman – via Linked In

Expand Your Thinking, Not Just Your Skillset – by Sébastien Thibault – via 99u

How to Make Learning More Automatic – by Gretchen Rubin – via Harvard Business Review

How to Say No to Things You Want to Do – by Dorie Clark – via Harvard Business Review

The Number One New Year’s Resolution Every Leader Should Make – by Jack Welch – via Linked In

all the best, kevin