O Pilot! My Pilot! (or lessons in leadership)

Today I returned from Madrid, where I had been at a fantastic school delivering professional development on leadership. Whilst I sincerely hope the delightful staff at The British Council School learned from my training course, a true lesson in leadership was offered by the above pilot who flew the very delayed EZY2202 back to Luton.

The analogy between a pilot and a leader may seem time-worn, but today I can attest to its relevance.

The flight was delayed by about two and half hours. When we finally boarded, I was very grumpy and very tired. I became even more annoyed when they didn’t let me take my one, yes one, bag into the cabin – it had to go in the hold because apparently they were running out of room. So when I noticed that other people got to take three, yes three, bags into the cabin, I started to feel genuinely angry.

When, bag-less, I took my seat, I noted with a grim irony that of the three joined seats, one was free (‘I could have put my bag there!’ I thought indignantly). I sat down next to a young Spanish woman who was tapping lightly on her electronic device and I felt even more annoyed because, unlike her, I didn’t have my belongings to help me make it through the flight. I felt tears rising. I genuinely thought I might cry. However, I bravely held them back. After all, I had no tissues with which to wipe my eyes or blow my nose.

I was seated in row 3. Very close to the front, on the aisle. So, when a man took hold of the on-board microphone and introduced himself as the pilot, I immediately recognised him as the man who had, moments before, greeted me warmly as I came on board. At the time, I had scowled at him in response because I was holding anyone and everyone associated with EasyJet responsible for preventing me from getting home and denying me my right to my one bag. Now, as he started to speak, I felt a tiny bit guilty. I had never even seen a pilot before; most of them remain enigmatically absent from view. This one had welcomed me onto the plane and I had ignored him.

His speech started with an apology. He said that he was sorry, really sorry for our delay. He said he understood our frustration. He said the cabin crew had also been waiting all day and he apologised to them too. He then gave an explanation for the delay. It was something to do with a technical fault in Paris preventing the scheduled pilot from being here, but to be honest I wasn’t taking it in because I was so surprised by the fact I was being given an explanation by this daring pilot, who could – quite understandably – have stayed hidden in the cockpit rather than facing this grim and angry mob.

He then said that when he had received a call early this morning asking him to fly out to Madrid to step in, he was pleased to say yes. I thought for a horrible, cynical moment that he was going to portray himself as our hero and ask us to worship him, but that’s not what he did at all. He made it all about the cabin crew. He said that of course he would want to come and fly with this fantastic cabin crew, because who wouldn’t? The cabin crew were trying very hard at this point to remain professionally straight-faced, but because I was right near the front I could see by their blushes that they were pleased.

He could have stopped there, but he didn’t. He said, ‘I really hate being late. We all do. We hate it when flights are delayed because we know how it makes you feel. It makes us feel that way too, and contrary to what you might think, we do everything we possibly can to rectify the situation. That’s why I broke the speed limit on the way to airport after receiving the call – no, I didn’t, honestly – well, maybe I pushed seventy-one – and that’s why this brilliant crew will do everything they can to make your flight as pleasant as possible.’

There was more. I’m only giving you the snippets I can recall. Almost everything the pilot said was delivered with empathy, humility and humour. The passengers, after initial wariness, were laughing in all the right places, rolling their eyes on cue and smiling ruefully when prompted by a shared frustration. He got it just right. There was complete silence on board (apart from the roar of the… whatever it is that roars when you’re on a plane that’s standing still) and we were all, with eager faces, turned towards him listening to every word.

He continued with this: ‘So listen, if you’re feeling frustrated, don’t take it out on the cabin crew. It’s not their fault. Don’t take it out on your wife. It’s not her fault. You can take it out on your husband, because he probably deserves it. I’m a husband, so I know. But seriously, I’m the pilot, so come and take it out on me.’

Anyone who had been reluctant to cast aside their annoyance was submitting by now and laughing along with the rest of us. Grown men were guffawing. He’d just done this magical thing – he had reached out to husbands. It was a masterful moment.

When he delivered his final flourish, it was to an audience who were sold. There was no more need for convincing. He could have said anything and it would have been right. He said this: ‘It is my great pleasure and privilege to be your pilot today. I’ve flown around quite a lot so you’ve got nothing to worry about. I will get you to… what’s the name of that airport again? Oh yes, Luton… I will get you to Luton, or somewhere close, so please just sit back, relax and allow this fantastic cabin crew to look after you.’

He got a round of applause. The people all exulting with approval.

Well, you can imagine the state I was in. Lack of tissues notwithstanding, I could not stop the flow of tears. Any spontaneous, collective show of emotion finishes me off. I was clapping and crying at the same time. My mood had completely shifted. I genuinely no longer felt grumpy, or even tired, and I certainly didn’t feel angry anymore. I felt… happy.

The pilot had shown great leadership. He had apologised unreservedly at the start. It was a genuine apology that had been delivered with empathy. He had presented himself to us as a human being. Someone fallible, responsible, humble. His apology hadn’t threatened his authority, rather it had augmented it. He had taken full responsibility for the situation, not because it was his fault, but because he was our pilot – and that’s what pilots do.

He had openly recognised his team. Through his praise, he had alleviated any grumpiness in the crew who were now bursting with pride and being delightful to everyone. He had demonstrated to us that this was a team to be trusted. He had diverted any negative attention away from his cabin crew and onto him, although of course, by that time, there was no negativity that needed to be directed anywhere. He had made us feel special, glad almost that we had endured this delay, because now we were on this flight, with this crew and this pilot. Instead of having a plane full of grumpy, fractious passengers he now had a plane full of placated, happy passengers. Genius.

Suitably cheery, we readied ourselves for take off. As we were doing so, an air stewardess came over and spoke to two people who were sitting in the three joined seats in the row front of me. She asked them if they would mind moving to the middle of the plane because a mother and her two small children hadn’t been allocated adjacent seats and they really wanted to sit together. For some unfathomable reason (“but I need to get off the plane quickly when we land because I have a meeting to attend” – sorry, what?) the people in front were not instantly willing so I immediately piped up and said that the young Spanish woman and I would happily move to the middle of the plane.

The young Spanish woman was slightly surprised by this, but perfectly willing to be commandeered to a new seat in solidarity for the poor mother who had been separated from her children. The mother herself was beside herself with gratitude and the air stewardess looked genuinely relieved that the problem was solved and we could be on our way.

Somewhere over France, whilst the swaying mass enjoyed tax-free shopping, it struck me that this was an example of what Andy Buck calls discretionary effort. I need not have offered to move; I was not being asked to do so. I wanted to. This may have been because I am a thoroughly decent human being, of course, but I suspect I was helped by the culture and climate the pilot had created. What he ‘did’, resulted in how I ‘felt’, which resulted in my offer to help. This is what we want to inspire in the people we lead; a willingness to go the extra mile, and to do so generously, in the spirit of the culture that has been created – and to contribute to it.

Later on in the flight, the young Spanish woman and I enjoyed complimentary drinks and snacks in return for our kindness. The pilot may not have been aware of any of this, but in my mind it was on his express instruction. Now that’s good leadership.

When safe and sound at Luton, I made a bit of a fool of myself by running after the pilot in baggage collection. In the absence of bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths, I thanked him and asked if I could take his photograph. He must have thought I was a lunatic. I told him I was going to blog about him because he had crystallised aspects of leadership that many of us could learn from. He seemed slightly bemused, but genuinely pleased.

If you recognise him, please could you pass him a message? Can you tell him this:

O Pilot! My Pilot! I am very grateful for the impromptu lesson in leadership; I appreciated your candour, humility and humour, but next time – please let me take my bag on board!

(Unsolicited use of the poetic form borrowed in reverence from Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain – a favourite of educators everywhere)

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