Looking for a Leader

Austin Lohnes
Looking for a Leader

We’re all familiar with the saying it’s the small things that matter. Here’s how that leadership principle applies at your credit union or community bank.

Last weekend, I visited some friends out-of-state for a golf outing and some good friendly catching-up. My return flight home included a connecting flight at a major airport hub.

The airport where I live is small. There are no jumbo jets arriving or departing; only the small two-seater jets. Overhead space for bags is limited on these jets, but I travel light (backpack and rolling carry-on). Because of the limited space, I get my carry-on checked at the gate when I board, and it joins the rest of the luggage under the plane for pickup at final destination. I hold my backpack.

Always put accuracy before speed.

It’s Sunday night. Boarding for my return flight begins about 9:30p. Sticking to my system, I check my carry-on at the gate and keep my backpack with me.

I board, find my seat, and settle in…about five rows from the back of the plane. The pilot makes an announcement that in-air flight time will be 30 minutes, but the flight crew is still awaiting one final inspection before wheels up.

“Awesome,” I think to myself. It’s typically a 40-50 minute flight.

I put my headphones in, throw on an audiobook, and sit back.

And wait.

And wait.

Finally, we push back.

Some birds aren’t ready to leave the nest. Don’t force them.

There are two flight attendants, who we’ll call Amy and Barry. Amy is confident as she goes about her job duties. I can tell she’s been on the job a long time.

Barry is relatively new on the job. He takes most of his cues from Amy. And when it’s time for the seatbelt/life vest demonstrations, he fumbles through them…but makes a smooth recovery at the end and finishes strong (not like anyone pays attention anyway).

Barry isn’t rattled by any of this. In fact, he almost embraces it…in a way that’s like ‘I’m new, and I know it.’ His PA announcements are light-hearted and upbeat; overall happy. Frankly, it’s pretty refreshing to hear when you’ve been flying all day, and you’re just ready to be home.

We take off. The climb out is a little bumpy, but nothing major. The flight time ends up being about 35 minutes; a little longer than the captain’s estimate, and a little shorter than normal. The flight is uneventful and unremarkable…almost.

Because my home airport is so small, and there’s no jumbo jets, the first and final legs of my air-travel are almost-always the same connecting flight. So, I’m familiar with the trip…about as familiar as any passenger can be, anyway. I’ve got a pretty good feel for what the flight ‘feels’ like.

And tonight, it ‘feels’ like we’re coming in way too fast for landing.

What you say, and how you say it, matters.

The touchdown is rocky. And I have to brace myself against the seat in front of me when the brakes are applied. We’re braking hard.

I look around at others’ reactions. People are looking around, like me, but no one says anything. We taxi to the gate like normal.

We stop. The seatbelt sign turns off. People get up and begin retrieving bags. Then Barry makes an announcement from the front of the plane.

“Everyone grab your bags. Deplane. Let’s go.”

There’s a collective chuckle from many passengers, like he tried to tell a joke that just didn’t quite land.

I’m confused.

Then there’s a second announcement from Barry, about ten seconds later.

“Let’s go, people! Evacuate!”

Surprisingly, there’s not much reaction from passengers. Most go from light-hearted laughter to confusion.

“Oh, Barry,” I think to myself. “Poor choice of words.”

I turn to Amy, who’s at the back of the plane near me. She looks horrified. She picks up the phone and calls Barry.

“What is going on?!” Amy asks.

There’s a pause. Then she hangs up.

“Oh my god! He’s right! Evacuate now!”

I calmly set my backpack down on the seat. The person sitting next to me jumps up and grabs his bag from the overhead bin.

I think to myself, “If he’s taking his, then I’m taking mine.”

So, I pick my backpack up again.

Around me is sheer panic. The aisle is jammed with passengers. People are yelling. Some are headed toward the back of the plane, like fish swimming upstream. It’s pandemonium. Then Amy shouts,



I still take my backpack.

And tonight, in the middle of all the chaos, it never dawns on anyone to use the Emergency Exits.

Control the narrative. Or someone else will.

Thankfully, Amy’s intervention redirects everyone into a single-file line, and the flow as we deplane is quick, but clunky. As I’m nearing the front, the passenger in front of me says to the person in front of him,

“See? We came in way too fast! My guess is the brakes are burned up. Probably on fire.”

I step off the plane and onto the bridge. But there’s no smoke. There’s two mechanics there. One is holding a phone, and the other is asking,

“Are you calling 911?”

The mechanic with the phone nods.

I make my way up the bridge toward the gate. It’s then that I realize the rush of adrenaline I’ve been experiencing the last 3-4 minutes. My legs feel weak. And I might need to sit down.

But I still have no confirmation of what’s happening. I don’t even know if I’m still in danger. There’s only a guess (from another passenger) that the brakes were on fire.

So, I continue briskly walking through the airport toward the exit, and call my wife, who’s waiting outside to pick me up. I begin by assuring her that I’m fine, and then give a quick recap of what happened.

“Maybe we should just leave my rolling carry-on and come back tomorrow,” I say to her.

“Why don’t you wait at baggage claim? And see if you can find out more info,” she replies.

Good idea. So, I join a crowd of about 30 around the baggage carousel and wait.

When there is trouble, communication must double.

Naturally, the emergency took precedent over the bags. Because after waiting about 30 minutes, it was evident the bags weren’t coming. I decide to exit the airport and head to the car, where my wife is still waiting.

On my way, I see the pilot and flight crew descending the escalator. Several passengers see them. I stop, thinking that we’ll get more information.

They step off the escalator and head straight for the door. There’s no word from any of them.

Not really knowing what to do next, I check to make sure I have my ticket stub that will allow me to claim my bag later. I do. So, I leave.

And I have so many questions, such as:

  • Was I in any danger?
  • Were we really coming in too fast?
  • Was braking too hard the real problem?
  • Or was there a problem the whole time? We were delayed pushing back from the gate. And the pilot informed us then that they were awaiting one final inspection.
  • What happens to my other bag?
  • Was it burned to a crisp?
  • Why was Barry, who’s clearly the new guy, the one making such a dramatic announcement in such rare circumstances?
  • And why did Amy not know a thing until she became just as confused as the rest of us when she heard Barry say, “Evacuate!”

No one cares about how the sausage is made.

I may sound ungrateful. I’m not. I truly am relieved that no one (that I know of) was injured. But those are all questions that naturally ran through my head.

The airline industry, for all its faults, really is a remarkable system. Tens of millions of Americans are in-flight every day. Connecting flights, changing gates, navigating unfamiliar airports, rerouting baggage, on-time arrivals and departures.

It’s a logistical behemoth. And behind the scenes lies a messy, complex world to which normal people are none the wiser. Remarkably, millions of people make it from Point A to Point B every day. The airlines get the big things right, and they provide an essential service to everyday life.

But it’s the small things that matter. No one cares how complex the system is. Especially when it’s working as designed. And they certainly don’t give you a pass when small things go wrong…because those are the things that impact people on an individual level.

When my debit card doesn’t work, I don’t care what your asset size is. Or that you have a +2 ROA. I don’t even really care how complex a debit card and the world of EFT’s really is.

I’m trying to buy groceries…and I can’t! That’s what matters.

As a leader, people are always looking to YOU.

Barry should never have been the one to make that announcement. It took him two tries (and an intervention from Amy) to get people to evacuate the plane. Neither he, nor Amy, were able to convey what the level of danger was, nor the level of urgency with which we should evacuate. And thus, panic ensued. Because in that moment, there was an absence of leadership.

I’m not saying it was their fault. It’s possible they didn’t have all the facts.

But that’s the point. No one did. The information was so poorly disseminated. In that moment, we needed someone to lead us…calmly and confidently.

We needed the captain.

And once off the plane, we needed information about the next phases. Like, where to go to get clear of the danger, where to pick up our bags, how to get items left on the plane.

That night, we were failed. In spectacular fashion.

As a general leadership principle, your staff needs you to lead them. And if you aren’t part of the equation, they need your representative who speaks as, and on behalf of, you. Get your team in a room and practice. Simulate likely scenarios. And then simulate unlikely scenarios.

Who’s running point? Calling the shots? Who’s fielding questions? Is anyone disseminating information? Who’s remembering the fundamentals, like emergency exits?

Anything short of this, and you lose the trust of your people. Like a plane that enters a deep stall, it’s unrecoverable.

I’ll be flying again in a couple of weeks…because I must. My fingers are crossed that this time, the small things are covered.

Austin Lohnes
Operations Coordinator
Austin Lohnes
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