Makarios Consulting Blog

Leadership from Zero to 30,000 Feet

You’ve likely seen news stories of violence in the skies as passengers become unruly, enraged, and abusive. Well, I (Tim) was on a flight at the end of August that had all the makings of major passenger disgruntlement, to put it mildly. But because of the great leadership of our captain, the flight didn’t make it into the headlines.

Our flight was heading into Chicago when the captain announced that a front was moving in and he had been instructed to go into a holding pattern above the O’Hare International Airport. We could see thunderheads darkening the sky and coming closer by the minute.

After circling for a while, the captain came on again. He explained that he was going to fly west and then north to try coming in behind the front. At this point, my “leadership” antennae went up as I noticed that the captain was being fully transparent with the passengers. So often, the opposite happens on flights. You know something is wrong or suspect that you are going to be delayed, but the crew keeps you in the dark. You ask questions and get no answers and become more and more frustrated. (I should know … I have logged more miles in the air than I can count.)

We felt the plane come out of the holding pattern and accelerate as the captain punched it to try to beat the strengthening winds. Some fifteen minutes later, he brought us the bad news: O’Hare had completely shut down. No planes could land, including ours. With our fuel level dropping, we had to go to another airport – located in Rockford, Illinois – to refuel. The captain went on to say that Rockford is a tiny airport and that when we arrived, we would park the plane. Other planes were also being diverted to Rockford to refuel. The airport did not have the staff or equipment to permit passengers to deplane, so we would simply be sitting on the tarmac for the duration.

We landed at Rockford and I observed that people were not angry. Certainly, the disappointment was palpable because we would not get to Chicago on time, but there was no yelling, no cursing, no irate demands. People were calm. Why? Because they knew exactly what was happening.

Eventually, the captain informed us that we were second in line to be refueled. When the fuel truck came up to our plane, he let us know how long it would take. All the details people were wondering about were answered.

There was a sigh of relief when the captain announced that O’Hare had re-opened. He explained that we would get in the queue of planes to take off, and that he would keep us apprised. Which he did. As soon as he knew that we would arrive in Chicago at a certain time, we knew it. And we arrived exactly when he said we would.

Now, bear in mind that we arrived three hours late at O’Hare. Yet nobody was upset. Nobody was throwing a fit. Nobody was asking for compensation. Not a single voice had been raised the entire time.

As the icing on the cake, the captain spoke with every single passenger as we deplaned to apologize for the delay and thank us for our patience. I admit, I held up the line when I reached him. I told him how absolutely extraordinary the experience had been. That I have been traveling for business for 23 years and have never had such full transparency and timely updates. I congratulated him on his leadership and told him he would be the focus of a future blog. He laughed and said, “I owed it to you as passengers to keep you updated. I owed it to you to stand here and greet each of you and offer my apologies for the delay. That is my responsibility.”

And that is what great leadership looks like in a difficult situation. Openness and honesty. Transparency and communication. Responsibility and ownership.

No, our flight didn’t make the headlines. In a way, I wish it had. More people need to hear about people like that captain – people who make a difference because they know what it is to be a great leader.