Allen Zing, one of the Six Seconds Network members, shared this excellent post with me as an example of emotionally intelligent leadership. With the author’s permission, we’re reposting it here. While Stace doesn’t talk specifically about emotional intelligence, we immediately saw examples of Six Seconds’ EQ competencies in the pilot’s responses, in Stace’s descriptions of the leadership implications for all of us. Great reminders that leadership is a series of choices, and there are emotional opportunities and consequences in those decisions.
A Leadership Practice Case in Point
by Stace Williams, Director of Leadership Practice at BlessingWhite
For many of us in the corporate world, airline travel is a fact of life — and so are occasional flight delays. When mechanical problems occur on the ground, the accompanying uncertainties understandably frustrate passengers. We wonder when we’ll finally depart, whether we should try to find alternate options, and what to do if we miss connecting flights. Most of the time, we queue up at the counter to speak with a gate agent. The lines are long and slow, the gate agents doing their best to help each passenger as tension starts to build.
The cabin and cockpit crews wait out the delay too, but the captain has the added responsibility for deciding whether and when the airplane can fly. Airline pilots are a special breed; they’re confident, highly trained professionals who are ready for any airborne incident. From the pre-flight inspection until completion of the landing checklist, they hold the passengers’ safety in their hands. During a recent travel delay, it was one captain’s actions on the ground that delivered a powerful lesson in leadership.
On the Friday before Memorial Day I was waiting for United flight 271 to depart from Philadelphia. The aircraft, it turned out, had a serious mechanical problem. The gate agent announced there would be a delay while mechanics examined the plane (cue collective groan). The minutes ticked by. Passengers — many of them families with young kids jetting off for the first summer holiday — waited in the gate area for an update. Finally, the captain strode out of the jet bridge and began speaking over the public-address system.
He explained the problem, that it was not safe to fly the plane and that it wasn’t possible to predict the length of the delay. Removing his cap, he looked out at the passengers and apologized for the disruption that this indefinite delay was causing. Then he replaced the microphone and began speaking with each passenger in the long line at the counter. He shook every passenger’s hand as he answered their questions, and he listened intently to each person’s concerns.
Three hours after the scheduled flight time, the captain returned to the gate area. He announced to the anxious group that a working aircraft was en route. After telling the passengers of the anticipated departure time, he thanked everyone for their patience and understanding. He apologized again for the disruption and great inconvenience. And when he set the microphone down, the passengers at the gate began applauding.
Through his actions, the captain changed the mood of the group from anxious to hopeful and from frustration to relief. By frankly admitting the reality of the situation while also conveying sincere empathy for the passengers’ plight, he demonstrated that he’d read and interpreted their experience. In validating their perspective he also offered much-needed reassurance and details about how the airline was solving the problem.
The pilot could perfectly have fulfilled his duties without leaving his seat in the cockpit or without engaging any of the passengers, and yet he chose to do so. Not only did his leadership help passengers feel more assured, but it took a load off the ground staff and the cabin crew who would have felt the wrath of angry passengers.
Not many business leaders have the responsibility for others’ lives that airline pilots do, but we’d be wise to take a lesson from this leader. What he did that evening was uncommon but not especially difficult. The key lies in the leaders’ sensitivity to their followers and their ability to sense, understand, and then reorient their followers’ perspective. Whenever leaders are confronted with an unhappy team — customers, employees, and colleagues alike — they can remember these simple but powerful actions:
1. Lead from the front. Customer-service personnel bear the brunt of customers’ frustrations. But just as this captain chose to leave the cockpit and engage the passengers at the gate area, so too should leaders take responsibility for directly confronting unhappy customers or team members.
2. Show understanding of others’ experience. It takes more than empathizing comments to convey that a leader gets it; leaders need to broaden their points of view and really see it from their followers’ perspective. Leaders need to think beyond their own views and ask themselves, “What does it mean to them?”
3. Remind people what’s important. Leaders need to see the big picture and help the group to focus on it. This airline pilot reiterated in both of his announcements the commitment he and his team had to the passengers’ safety. That helped the passengers to see beyond their immediate inconvenience.
4. Be part of the solution. Whether reassuring each passenger in line, speaking directly with the mechanics, or calling flight operations to explore alternatives, the captain took an active part in handling the problem. Every group values leaders who visibly work to change the current situation. Such leadership actions instill confidence during times when uncertainty prevails.
5. Express genuine appreciation. In tough times, the best leaders recognize and convey their gratitude for followers’ efforts. When the captain thanked the passengers for their patience and cooperation, he meant it…and the passengers felt it. Getting past a problem takes everyone’s help, and a sincere “thank you” means a great deal.
The airline captain in this story changed the mood and experience for over 200 people with his two brief announcements and his personal interactions with the passengers. By following his example, we can lessen our followers’ frustrations, increase their trust in us, and help them overcome problems and challenges they face. Few leaders earn applause for their efforts. But by applying these leadership lessons, they have the opportunity to earn the respect and commitment of those they lead.
I would like to thank the pilot of United flight 271, Captain Douglas Moore, for stepping up and engaging 200 of his followers on that day.
Stace Williams is the Director of BlessingWhite’s Leadership Practice – www.blessingwhite.com. Stace was first a client and then an Associate Facilitator of BlessingWhite before joining the team full-time in 2010. Previously, she was a mechanical engineer and software developer with an interest in her own leadership development. Over the next 20 years she studied and practiced, helping other leaders learn and develop, too. As Practice Director, she looks for and shares experiences of authentic leadership in business organizations and daily life, including frequent airline travel.
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