Recently, we took a cross-country flight and on the flight we witnessed an extraordinary leader in action. Let us explain:

At Carpenter Smith Consulting we define leadership as a willingness to influence your world and a willingness to be influenced by your world (or in this case, a plane with 180 passengers on board). One of the things we see in great leaders is that they are in relationship with the people they lead even if it’s not face-to-face. As you will see in this case, our leader wasn’t being influenced by us directly but by what he knew of passengers who had flown with him over the years.

When we boarded the flight, the captain introduced himself by standing at the front of the plane, speaking his name and waving hello to the passengers. (Leadership act #1: He made himself more than just a voice but a person that we could see and get a feel for.) He then told us our flying time to NYC and said that he expected an on-time flight but that there was the prediction of some weather in the NYC area, therefore he would keep an eye on it and let us know as the flight progressed if anything developed. (Leadership act #2: He understood that we had a vested interest in how the flight would unfold and promised to keep us informed of possible changes.)

Halfway into the 4.5-hour flight, he came back on the intercom and said that weather was in fact brewing and that for the time being it was believed that we would land before the severe weather hit. (Leadership act #3: He had promised to keep us informed AND HE DID.)

image out of plane window of large stormWith 30 minutes left in the flight he announced that we were cleared for landing but it could get a bit bumpy. Twenty minutes into our descent the plane suddenly pulled sharply up and we began to ascend instead of descend. He immediately came on the intercom and said that we had been waved off our landing due to the storm and that we were going to have to circle for at least half an hour until the storm passed. (Leadership act #4: He knew the act of suddenly pulling up was frightening and calmed our nerves by informing us quickly of the reason for the abrupt change in the flying pattern and also gave us an estimate of the delay.)

After circling for 30 minutes he came back on the intercom and announced that the storm wasn’t moving as quickly as predicted so we were going to have to circle another half hour. He also stated that we were near our back-up airport so that should we need fuel we could land in Harrisburg to refuel before continuing onto NYC. (Leadership act #5: He communicated with confidence that he was in command and let us know that he had back-up plans in place so we need not worry.)

After the additional 30 minutes of circling, he announced that we needed to refuel so would go to Harrisburg and wait the storm out on the ground. As we headed to Harrisburg, we suddenly banked hard and headed the opposite direction of Harrisburg. Our captain came back on and indicated that Harrisburg was backing up with other “rejected NYC flights” so we needed to head to Philadelphia instead; he assured us that we had plenty of fuel, and that since we had to descend through some rough weather it could be a bit bumpy going down. (Leadership act #6: He predicted our fears and calmed them by telling us what to expect.)

We landed in Philly in what we could only assume was a pilot’s idea of hell. Strong winds, heavy rain, and lots of air pockets. It was one of those landings when everyone applauded as the plane touched down. Our captain came on the airwaves and apologized for the landing. He also said he would let us know what was happening when we got to the gate and he had more information. Sure enough, we got to the gate and he said that we were going to refuel and then get back in the air as quickly as possible since there were other storms in line to hit NYC and the window for landing between the storms was getting narrow. (Leadership act #7: He owned the hard landing—didn’t even blame the weather when he could have!)

While on the ground, passengers called NYC to change their pick-up options and to get rebooked due to missed connections. An hour passed and the pilot kept us informed of our status every 15 minutes. We got back into the air as soon as we refueled and headed back to NYC. Twenty minutes into the flight, the pilot came on the intercom and said, “I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but we have to circle again. I’m so sorry. It could be 30 – 45 minutes but I’ll keep you informed as I hear more from the tower.” We circled for just 35 minutes with the captain keeping us in the loop all the while. We landed smoothly in NYC 3.5 hours late, and again, we all applauded when we touched down.

The flight attendant came on the intercom and welcomed us to NYC, told us the time, and said that in all her years as a flight attendant, she had never seen such amazing passengers—we had endured much ambiguity and stress without a single complaint. You see, the leadership of the captain had made us all great passengers; our behavior was the direct consequence of great leadership.