Sometimes, pictures of what leaders need to be come from the most unexpected places. Like a crowded airport.
I was standing in the general boarding area at the gate with approximately 500 other folks—all of us looking like we just witnessed a puppy murder. That’s how it is the day you leave the island of Maui. It’s tough. People are dejected. Some have tears in their eyes.
And at this point—the end of a magical vacation filled with the Aloha Spirit—you just want to board the airplane and get home. It’s too miserable to think about the fact that although technically you’re still on island, and just a few hundred yards from escaping back into paradise…you cannot do so because you’ve run out of time, money, lodging and your “real life” awaits.
Leaders Need to be Honest
So, there we were. Two groups at adjacent gates waiting to board two different airplanes departing within minutes of each other for the five-hour journey back across the Pacific to the West Coast. We should have started boarding already. We hadn’t. More time goes by. Everyone standing in the ‘unofficial’ line to board. Finally, the gate agent admits there is a delay with our airplane—the specific cause unknown to her—but maintenance is on the way. Isn’t it funny that we all want to know what the specific issue is? Like we are going to pull a torque wrench from our carry-on, head to the tarmac and save the day.
More minutes pass. We see the crew come to and from the jet bridge several times. Another announcement that the maintenance crew is working on the problem. The other airplane has departed and is probably halfway through their beverage service by now. Our folks are getting disgruntled. The tension is palpable. Murmurs turn into a sea of audible moans and complaints.
The Best Leaders Are Also Clear
The pilot comes out of the jet bridge, sees what is happening, walks confidently and directly to the gate agent’s desk and grabs the microphone to the PA system. As he scans left to right looking all of us in the eye, he says this:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am the captain of this aircraft and I have been a pilot for 31 years, I understand that you are frustrated, and you are ready to be on your way. The crew is as well. But I identified a problem with this aircraft, and I requested the maintenance crew to attempt to solve it. While we would like nothing more than to have an on-time departure and arrival, my priority is the safety of passengers, every single one of you, and my crew. I will not fly an aircraft that I think is unsafe to the lives onboard. Your lives are infinitely more important than being on time. Should maintenance resolve the issue, we will be on our way shortly, but be assured…I will not put your lives at risk.”
As he handed the microphone back to the gate agent, he received a standing ovation from all of us. You see, in the moment when things are “normal” for all of us, we have our blinders on able to see only what impacts us, it’s easy to lose sight of the overall vision and direction—to say nothing of those pesky issues that creep up and force our organizations to pivot.
Your People Need You to be Confident
Leaders need to be confident. Take the microphone and tell the people what is true. We can handle the truth. When you as a leader give us the direction, the vision, the strategy, and the reasons for what we are doing, we can buy in and follow. Connect people to purpose. Everything that is good thrives in the light. I can’t promise you’ll get a standing ovation, but people will know who you are and what you stand for, and when they do, they are exponentially more likely to follow you. You now know what leaders need to be, and you are cleared for takeoff.