An Airplane, A Heart Attack, and How I Learned to Lead in Crisis

Syracuse is not Seattle. What an unplanned emergency taught me about leadership.

I eased back in my seat, exhausted after a long week of client delivery.

I usually don't rest well on airplanes, but I was bone dead tired and the non-stop flight from Newark, New Jersey to Seattle, Washington provided plenty of opportunity to doze in dreamland.

Just as the airplane leveled from takeoff and we set our course for Seattle, that lovely, semi-conscious state of sleep began to wash over me. But then a panicked scream pierced the polite quiet of our 747.

Two rows in front of me an older gentleman was having a heart attack, and his wife was frantically trying to get help. An attendant arrived to answer the woman's cries, a defibrillator was yanked out of the overhead compartment, other crew members raced down the aisle to our rows, and the pilot made an urgent request for a doctor.

While this was going on, the airplane banked sharply to the right and we made our way to the nearest airport, which was not Newark, New Jersey but Syracuse, New York. An ambulance met the airplane and the stricken passenger and his wife slid down an inflatable ramp to be rushed to the nearest hospital. We were informed a few hours later that he survived (Thanks to the quick actions of the crew, I'm sure.).

On the tarmac, however, all manner of challenges awaited us.

First, airplanes the size of the one we were in don't fly in and out of Syracuse Hancock International Airport, so there was no appropriate gate equipment available to deboard the plane. Second, we landed with a full load of fuel, which meant we landed over the recommended weight limit for a 747. A safety check by a qualified engineer had to be conducted before we could takeoff again. And third, if it took too long to get that safety check completed, our trip to Seattle would put the fight crew past their allowable hours, so a new crew would have to be brought to Syracuse.

That Heart Attack and What We're Experiencing Today

I was struck this week by the similarities of this story and what we're all experiencing with the Coronavirus. The year had taken off and we were leveling out, set on a direct course to 2020 goal completion. But then an unplanned emergency struck us, and we've made a sharp bank to the right. Quarantine, shelter-in-place, and social distancing are all now a part of our daily vocabulary.

We were supposed to be on our way to Seattle, but now we're stuck on the tarmac in Syracuse. Here's what I learned from this experience:

1. Don't pretend everything is fine. Communicate with care and candor.

One of the things our brilliant Alaska Airlines flight crew did as we sat restlessly in our airplane seats is acknowledge the difficult situation we were in. They didn't put a positive spin on it and promise that we would all be in Seattle in no time (or by Easter).

They didn't make us panic, but they explained very clearly what had happened, what was going on, and what they were doing about it. And they did that over and over again.

Care and candor. Care and candor. Care and candor.

Some of us are more comfortable with care than candor, others of us are just the opposite. But you can't choose heads or tails on this one. You've got to do both at the same time to effectively communicate as a leader, especially in a crisis.

Care provides the empathy people need for their raw emotions. And emotions are raw right now. Meet people here first. Then candor provides the clarity needed to move forward in a positive, productive path. Not one or the other, but both in concert together.

2. Don't pretend Syracuse is Seattle. Get back in pursuit of your goals.

I know this seems patently obvious, but it must be said: Syracuse is not Seattle. Not only are they thousands of miles apart, but the coffee and the beer doesn't compare (or those super funky Seattle pubs and restaurants).

So what did we do? After clearing our safety inspection, we got back in the air and set a course for the Northwest.

How do you do this right now? Look at the goals you set in January. They're just as relevant today as they were then. Find a way to get back on track with them. In other words, don't accept the so-called "new normal." Detours shouldn't derail goal completion. Yes, detours may delay it, but don't let them destroy it.

Syracuse is not Seattle! Find a way to get to Seattle.

3. Let crisis spark creativity.

Then the most amazing thing happened on our Alaska Airlines flight from Newark to Seattle via Syracuse.

The pilot took a different route. A less direct route, but one that skipped over the United States and caught the east-west slipstream that intercontinental flights usually enjoy. As a result of these tailwinds, we landed in Seattle a mere 60 minutes later than our originally intended arrival. I actually made my scheduled connecting flight and got home at the same time I would have had not a heart attack interrupted us.

Here's the point: crisis sparks creativity.

Untethered to tradition as you are right now, what out-of-the-box alternatives can you consider? What can you do differently to make your business even better? What slipstream can you ride?

Let the necessity of this moment mother the invention of a whole new way of doing business that helps you achieve your goals more than ever before.

Unless, of course, you want to stay stuck on a tarmac in Syracuse. But I don’t think you do.

Other Great Reads This Week:

Here are the new rules for professional productivity from the Wall Street Journal: I’ve Worked From Home for 22 Years. Here’s What I’ve Learned.

Andrew Sobel, my friend and mentor, just launched his sixth book, It Starts with Clients. It’s a 100-day plan for building lifelong business relationships and it’s awesome.

This is a fascinating piece from Forbes on how the freelance community can save your business. It’s packed with useful information and counterintuitive insight.

Best video of the week: Jeb Blount on three keys to keeping your sales job during the Coronavirus crisis. The first one is priceless!

What's Up with Me?

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