Arriving at the gate for my 2:30 pm flight from South Carolina to DC, I noticed the seats in the waiting area were filled with snoozing passengers. Alas, the 10 am flight still hadn’t taken off. Knowing an ice storm was bearing down on the region, I had just settled into a vacant seat to prepare for a long wait when I heard a voice behind me. “Hello everyone! Anyone seen a plane around here?” Glancing over wearily at the jokester, I noticed he was wearing wings on his lapel. The pilot had arrived.

Over the next hour, the gate crew scrambled to corral the crowd and re-ticket passengers from both the 10 am and the 2:30 flights onto one plane to get the flight in the air before the runway iced up. And where was the pilot? In the cockpit, doing whatever pilots do before takeoff? No, this pilot stayed with the crowd, reassuring us we’d get off the ground, helping the gate agents, and keeping tempers from boiling over by entertaining us with well-timed jokes. At one point, he even complimented my shoes. That was it, the guy had me.

The flight was full. Most passengers had missed their connections already, and the storm was approaching. Clearly time was against us, and we had to depart before the airport closed. As I boarded warily, I noticed the pilot directing the ground crew to recheck the wings for ice. He saw me coming. “Are we good?” I asked. “You bet… we’re good to go,” he reassured me.

Instead of heading for the cockpit, he stood up front with the flight attendants until every seat was full, then took the mic and greeted his passengers. “How’s everyone doing? You ready to get this plane off the ground? Okay, fair warning, I flew helicopters for the military… so I can’t promise you I’ll fly straight, but I’ll get us there!” He had the crowd cheering. And he did get us there, up through the ice storm and on to DC…and just to make sure he left us with a laugh, when the wheels touched down he whooped over the audio, “Hip hooray, we made it! Welcome to New Orleans everyone!” Laughs all around.

What can we learn from our pilot about leadership during a time of turbulence?

  1. Be present and visible.  When an organization is hit with the unexpected, you’ll have to make a choice. You can either head for the cockpit—and your comfort zone—or you can stay at the gate and be the face of leadership for your team. By staying visible, the pilot had the opportunity to answer questions in real time, heading off even more passenger frustration and maintaining forward motion for the rest of the crew.
  2. Pitch in.  Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and engage in problem solving. You’ll earn respect and appreciation from those who are working on crisis management. Our pilot didn’t direct traffic or tell the gate agents how to do their jobs—he trusted that they knew what to do, but he also helped them get their job done by managing the crowd and setting expectations. 
  3. Diffuse emotions.  Tune in to the anxiety that crisis creates and win people over with understanding, calm confidence and, when appropriate, use humor to rally the team toward your cause. Nobody likes jokes when a true crisis is happening, but the light, personal touch and one-to-one conversations our pilot conducted got the passengers on his side and ready to help.
  4. Show you’re in control.  Be prepared to stand up and set clear expectations for the journey and for the destination. Don’t hand off the mic to your staff when people want to hear straight from the leader. As the pilot smiled while standing in front of the plane facing his passengers, he left us with one comment, “I know you’re allowed to keep your small devices on for now, but if I hear one phone ring during taxi, I’ll pull over and come back to talk with you… and I won’t be smiling!” He got a laugh, but we knew who was in charge.
  5. Stay connected.  Keep in touch. Don’t drop the ball on communication throughout the crisis. The pilot stayed focused while flying, but when he knew we were coming in for a landing, he made sure he touched base with his passengers one more time. When the crisis has passed, close the loop with your team to let people know they’re back on terra firma.

With strong leadership during times of turbulence, your team will always know that they’re on solid ground—even when things are up in the air.

From our lens of executive presence, this leader was demonstrating strengths in composure, resonance and concern. To learn more about our model and perspective on executive presence, and how to understand your own strengths visit here.

Learn more here:


Add a Comment: