Accelerate to Higher Leadership

Leaders in Flight: Lose the Attitude to Gain Altitude


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Leaders in Flight: Lose the Attitude to Gain Altitude

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were on a late-afternoon flight from Orlando to Houston on Southwest Airlines. Given the departure point, the airport was predictably packed with families returning home from their vacations. If you haven’t done so, escorting a group of children through an airport is not the most relaxing way to end an otherwise-splendid family trip. So I was not surprised to find that business travelers had been first to board the plane and occupied most of the aisle seats and quite a few of the windows. But we managed two seats together near the wing of the plane, where someone had set up his camp by the window.

The line of passengers continued to file in until to my eyes, there wasn’t a seat left untaken. The flow became a trickle which ended in the hope we would be lifting off soon. But one last family stumbled down the aisle and, a weary look in the father’s eyes, began attempting to find seats. At this point, there couldn’t have been a pair of open seats together anywhere on the plane. The flight attendant began opening and shutting the overhead compartments, looking for a place to cram the family’s luggage while the mother began bargaining with her older children to get them to sit in middle seats surrounded by strangers. The oldest of the six, who looked to be about twelve, did so reluctantly, but the younger children were staunchly refusing. The youngest was clutching a goofy plush. It wasn’t long before the attendant came on the loudspeaker.

“If there is anyone sitting next to an empty seat who will move to allow a young child to sit next to his father, press the call button.”

Silence.

“Again folks, can’t leave the gate until everyone is seated.” All these solo travelers were ignoring the repeated pleas for help. The silence continued on for several long minutes. The passengers sat stoic in their seats, each waiting for someone else to make the sacrifice. Eventually, I had had enough. I didn’t have an empty seat to offer but combined with my husband, we did have a pair. I asked him if it would be ok if we moved. “It’s only a two-hour flight,” he said. I hit the button.

I was led past a dozen rows to my new middle seat where the suit in the aisle seat stood and kindly held my things as I flopped into the middle seat.

Huddled against the window of my row was a teenager wearing headphones, oblivious to anything else on the plane. I understood why he might not have offered to move. But the man in the suit to my right, who had been so pleasant and helpful when I was being re-seated, he was alone. Why hadn’t he offered to move? Was it that much of an inconvenience to be seated for two hours in the middle of an airplane row? I turned around to try to get a glimpse of my husband. He was just a few rows behind me, between a businesswoman and a man who appeared to have arrived at the airport directly from the boardroom. Why hadn’t either of them offered to move?

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Fly Above Corporate Mode

Over the course of the flight I interacted with the man in the aisle seat several times. He was pleasant and courteous. During the moments of silence, I began to wonder: What stopped him from doing the right thing? Eventually, I began to assemble a theory: he is flying on business and he is in corporate mode. The hierarchies necessary to keep organizations running smoothly encourages some counter-productive behaviors. We become overly concerned with status, even when there is nothing to gain from that status. Who has the best parking space? The better office location? Am I flying coach or business class? If the flight is on Southwest, am I on an aisle seat? Am I important?

Convenience and comfort on this flight got tied up with status. The self-worth of the executive depends on what courtesies are afforded him and mundane problems like the plight of the father and mother on the plane are worries for those of much lower status.

I’m not immune. I’ve boarded flights in business class, concerned with absolutely nothing more than whether we would land in time. I was overly concerned with whether I was the first to receive the new gadgets that the company purchased. I was far too interested in what grade level my accommodations were and how they compared to those of others. One of many executives enjoying nothing more than my own self-importance.

Come on, you’ve seen it or been it. Talking too loud on their phones on an “important call.” Typing on their phones after the flight attendants have asked everyone to switch their phones to airplane mode. The executives holding up the boarding process by sauntering in late, acting as if we can’t leave till they arrive.

Get Connected

But after decades on the inside of major companies, I have now spent several years working on the outside of corporations, and shifting my perspective allowed me to step out of corporate mode. It allowed me to stop worrying about my own needs and start worrying about the needs of others. It’s ironic that the corporate atmosphere often breeds self-interested executives when what a company really needs to be successful is a team of directors and managers who are primarily concerned with what they can do to help each other.

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You just need awareness. If you see yourself as part of a connected whole, you will start thinking about what you can do for others. When the right thing needs to be done, you won’t hesitate to volunteer. This is called leading. When birds fly, the leader is the one that reduces drag for others. The bird that shoulders the brunt of the wind. When we stop thinking of leaders as those that receive the perks and benefits and start thinking of them as those that best serve others, the positive results will be reflected both in our personal lives and in our business success.

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