Born With Wings

As America’s first female F-14 Tomcat pilot, Carey Lohrenz learned a thing or two about courage. Now, she’s lending her thoughts on fearless leadership to the business world.

By Roshan McArthur

Be sure to catch Carey Lohrenz’s keynote speech at ICBA Community Banking LIVE in San Antonio from March 15–19. Visit to register

Carey Lohrenz knows all about fighting for what she wants. When she was just six weeks old, doctors informed her parents that their daughter’s hips weren’t fully formed and that she would most likely never walk. Refusing to accept the prognosis, they sought out second, third and fourth opinions until they found a surgeon who would operate on her. It was a painstaking process. To reposition her bones, Lohrenz was in a half-body cast for nearly two years and then had to wear special boots to lock her feet into position.

Not only did she walk, she also went on to become the first woman in the United States Navy to fly the supersonic wing fighter F-14A Tomcat: a 35-ton, $40 million jet that she had to land on the deck of a moving aircraft carrier, sometimes in the middle of the night. It was a feat that called for precision and fearlessness.

Today, Lohrenz puts these skills to use in her role as
a businesss and leadership consultant, helping businesses of all sizes hone their leadership skills and craft high-performing teams.

Dreams of flying
Aviation is a job Lohrenz feels she was born to do.
“I always knew from the beginning that I’d be an aviator,” she says. As children, she and her older brother would play with their father’s flight gear and silk maps from Vietnam. “Flying was in my blood. My dad was a United States Marine Corps aviator, and my mom was a flight attendant. I always knew I wanted to be a naval aviator, and I loved the U.S. Navy’s focus on mission before self.”

Pioneering pilot—Carey Lohrenz was one of the first women in the U.S. Navy to fly the 35-ton, $40 million supersonic wing fighter F-14A Tomcat

After leaving the University of Wisconsin with a BA in psychology and social work, she applied for Aviation Officer Candidate School (AOCS) in Pensacola, Fla., just as her older brother was graduating. At that point, in 1990, women were not allowed to fly combat aircraft and, she admits, “aiming for that goal seemed almost silly.”

When one of her brother’s AOCS peers told her a woman had no business being in combat, it left her wondering, “If the people whom I was supposed to be working with were actually against the idea of me even being there, would it be impossible to make it through the program?” She decided to do everything in her power to prove him wrong.

Challenge accepted
In 1993, the ban on women flying combat aircraft was lifted, and Lohrenz became one of a handful of women who were permitted to engage in combat aircraft assignments. A year later, she was assigned to the USS Abraham Lincoln and discovered that the life of a fighter pilot was one of the toughest environments on earth.

During the mission, her friend and fellow pilot, Kara Hultgreen, was killed while attempting to land an F-14 on the carrier. It was a devastating loss, and getting back into the cockpit that very same day taught Lohrenz the importance of courage under extreme duress.

Over the years, as a woman in a predominantly male world, she learned to deal with frequent personal attacks by letting them roll off her back and by prioritizing the mission in front of her.

“Focus on what matters,” she says. “At the end of the day, you have to aviate. Just fly the airplane. You have to maintain control, get the plane stable, and keep it safe. Without this first step, nothing else really matters.”

Lohrenz left the Navy in 1999 and has built a successful career as a leadership consultant in the nearly two decades since. She’s also an artist, a photographer and a mother of four, and is currently working on an MBA in Strategic Leadership.

Lessons from the flight deck
Translating her military experience into the business world came naturally to her. “I’ve been struck again and again by the parallels between the world of naval aviation and the world of business,” she says. “In both, leaders must perform highly complex and high-pressure tasks in a constantly changing environment.

“People are counting on you to make the right moves,” she adds. “Mistakes can result in huge financial losses or damage to your career. But no parallel has asserted itself more strongly or more consistently than this one: high-performing teams require fearless leaders. I’ve seen over and over how the skills necessary to effectively and inspiringly lead a team are lost when we’re crippled by individual fears and perceived limitations.”

For Lohrenz, there are three qualities that such a leader should cultivate: courage, tenacity, and integrity, the “secret sauce” for leading a team through challenging times. As an aviator, she is keenly aware of the importance of taking calculated risks. And as a pioneering female aviator, she knows leaders can’t let themselves be defined by somebody else’s limitations. “If we stop taking risks, we stagnate,” she says, “and eventually we become irrelevant to our customers and to the marketplace.

“Every great leader takes risks, and every great leader fails sometimes. That’s because these individuals display the first trait of fearless leaders: courage. They push aside their fear of failure and use the second fearless trait, tenacity, to go for it anyway. When the occasional, inevitable flop happens, it signals a perfect opportunity to display the third trait of fearless leaders—integrity—by admitting the failure openly.”

Leading by example, she says, is the key to building a great team. As she writes in her book, “Fearless Leadership: High-Performance Lessons from the Flight Deck,” “If you don’t boldly take the first step, whether it’s acting with confidence in your team or accepting the challenge to speak the unpopular truth, how on earth can you ever expect the people you lead to do the same?” In other words, get comfortable with being uncomfortable, cultivate courage in yourself, and use those skills to guide your team.

“Being able to develop high-performing, collaborative teams that leverage your collective brainpower will give you a distinct competitive advantage,” Lohrenz explains. “A team that is engaged, that never stops learning and innovating, that can embrace adversity, and that is committed to the mission’s success—that is a high-performing team. An effective team can help a company achieve amazing results. A team that is not working, however, can cause unnecessary disruption, failed delivery, and strategic collapse.”

This advice is applicable to businesses of any size, from a Fortune 100 company to a small-town community bank. “No matter your situation, the number one way to ensure that you’re the best leader you can be is to build your ability to work through fear—and do what needs to be done in spite of that fear, regardless of your organization’s size or your title,” she says.

“Just like flying an F-14, leading fearlessly never gets easy,” she adds, “and it requires nerves of steel. But I firmly believe that absolutely anyone can build his or her leadership skills and reap the rewards of doing so.”

3 easy ways to boost your team’s performance

  1. Pick three things to focus on. Write those three things down, and post them somewhere visible.
  2. Do a morning briefing with your team to gain alignment and role clarity.
  3. Debrief regularly. If you’re not doing this, you are regularly losing valuable information and reacting to situations instead of driving results. Figure out what worked and what didn’t, so you can fix it quickly.

Leading by example

Five leaders Carey Lohrenz admires—
and why

  • Grace Murray Hopper (1906–1992),
    pioneering computer scientist and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral, posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2016. Hopper famously said, “You don’t manage people, you manage things. You lead people.”
  • Christine Lagarde (1956– ), French lawyer and former government minister who has led the International Monetary Fund since 2011. She is quoted in the 2010 documentary Inside Job as saying, “The financial industry is a service industry. It should serve others before it serves itself.” Lohrenz calls her “an astute female leader who doesn’t play small.”
  • J. J. Watt (1989– ), defensive end for the Houston Texans. He was named AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times in his first five seasons and started an after-school sports foundation in 2010. He said, “Heard someone say, ‘I can’t wait until I can finally say I’ve made it.’ The day you think you’ve ‘made it’ is the day you began your decline.” Lohrenz admires his “tenacity, work ethic, and humility.”
  • James Mattis (1950– ), retired U.S. Marine Corps general who served as head of the U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013. Lohrenz calls him “a continuous learner and voracious reader.” In a 2003 email, Mattis wrote: “By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.”
  • Epictetus (AD 55–c. 135), Greek philosopher and exponent of Stoic ethics. Epictetus believed humans are responsible for their own actions, which they can control through self-discipline. Lohrenz says, “He was born a slave yet grew to be one of the world’s greatest philosophers. He represents to me that we are not limited to our current circumstance, but by what we choose to take action on.”

Roshan McArthur is a freelance writer in California.