The Wright Way to Work

Aug 29

I’ve been completely absorbed by The Wright Brothers by David McCullough.  I’ve enjoyed every one of his previous biographies of people like Harry Truman and John Adams  as well as the countless narrations of documentaries of historical events, most notable, his telling of Ken Burn’s The Civil War.  I’ve linked to the audio book version, so you can hear him tell this fascinating story, which follows the Wrights and their remarkable journey to solve the equation of flight.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were born in the latter part of the 19th century and saw the beginning of rapid changes in technology and industry.  Dayton, Ohio, where they were raised seemed to be a hub of this activity.  Sons of a preacher, they were as simple and unpretentious as could be.  They engaged in something we don’t see much today—reading and learning for their own sake and not part of required formal education.  Indeed, neither formally graduated from high school.  Orville, finally received a diploma in 1994 on the 127th anniversary of his birth.  Wilbur, although completing only 4 years, demonstrated wide-ranging knowledge on art, technology and history, often lauded by those around him as a genius.

They were particularly taken by the possibility of human flight.  Many people around the world were similarly fascinated, but did not approach the issue as carefully and methodically.  They studied all the data on flight they could accumulate and when that ran out, they began to experiment on their own.  They opened a bicycle shop that provided them the means to live and some of the technology expertise to solve the problem.  Perhaps the timing was right, in an age where people were moving from farms and horses to factories and vehicles of all kinds.  It’s amazing that the business flourished while they spent equal time exploring flight.

Throughout the experiments, they rather purposely refused financial assistance, using what they had from the shop and relying on the moral support of their father and sister who lived with them in Dayton.  They showed interest in what others were doing, including some a very well-funded attempt by the Smithsonian Institution, but remained content with their own course, never fretting about their limited resources.

McCullough’s book, carefully researched and drawing heavily on Wilbur’s journals and family letters, takes us much deeper than the rather simple story we learned in school.  A few things struck me as particularly interesting and useful for the modern world.

The Wright Team.  Each had strengths in abilities and opinions that formed their approach to building the flying machine.  Wilbur clearly led as the older brother, but also with calm confidence.  Orville, who was more emotional, still contributed heavily.  They clearly did not agree on everything, but managed to openly work out their differences and proceed quickly and efficiently.  They could not have accomplished what they did without each other.  In fact, they never flew together, with the idea that the other would carry on if one was killed.

Sticking to a central idea.  The Wrights concentrated on unmanned, then manned gliders first.  They pointedly focused on the construction of the wings and rudders, which took advantage of the wind, but depended heavily on the skill of the operator to maintain equilibrium while the machine was in flight.  It was this idea that separated them from the rest.

Keeping it Simple.  Unlike others who filmed and promoted their work, the Wrights kept pretty much to themselves, reaching out to close and carefully selected people who had resources or skills that they did not possess.  They communicated with other flight experts, but kept their work contained to their small circle, only going public when they felt they were ready.

Courtesy and respect.  Orville and Wilbur were raised to be polite and knew no other way to act.  They were confident in their work, but never criticized their rivals’ efforts even when many doubted and criticized them.  Running their business and conducting experiment offered them very little time to complain.  During their troubles, they kept their thoughts within the family.

Dealing with “Commercial Matters”.  Even though the bicycle shop seemed successful with very little effort, Wilbur had very little interest in business matters and Orville even less.  When they finally had a practical flying machine Wilbur stepped up to the challenge of making it available to business and governments in the US and abroad.   He steadfastly resisted those who suggested bribery to get the deals done.  They did not sell their idea to the first bidder and did so in their own way and on terms consistent with their modest, yet powerful values.

Normally, in my bullet points, I would include something about trial and error, but remarkably, there seemed to be relatively few serious errors.  Each year during the experiments, trips to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina proceeded on schedule and improvements and repairs did little to impede progress.  There were certainly hardships and setbacks, but the brothers seldom complained and seemed to accomplish a great deal in a short time without a lot of resources– a useful lesson in any age.


performance management empowering good work choices


  1. Great post! I was really inspired by how they so singularly focussed on learning and growing and doing it their way. Such learning and growth is even more possible today because we have the full resources of the Internet

    • And, they’re from Ohio! Thanks Geoff!

      • Google Richard Pierce Rick… The Wright Bro’s weren’t the first….

        • Rick Gibbs /

          Very interesting Geoff! It seems he had many of the Wright’s qualities, namely, a lack of pretense and desire for privacy. Too bad those prevented him from photographing his accomplishment, which might have resulted in a different history. One thing is certain: New Zealanders and Ohioans are a cut above!

  2. As a lover of flight, starting lessons when I was barely 15, I have always loved the stories of the Wright brothers. Being now an adult often faced with many of the challenges they faced- doing it the way you are ‘told to’ or going your own way- I find their story, as presented here, even more compelling. Learning is a lifelong quest for so many and these brothers truly show us about commitment, focus, standards and ethical, respectful business practices- Long before they were buzzwords! Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks very much for reading Dawn! I was also amazed by the quality and clarity of the letters they had with each other. We don’t see that these days!

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