Sleeping on the floor of an airport may not seem like an opportunity to practice leadership, but it was. It was a long week, late at night, and we were ready to get home. And though the second leg of our flight was delayed, we finally boarded and pulled away from the gate.
Minutes later, plans changed. Not our plans to get home, but the pilots’ plans to avoid working over their 9-hour limit. Had we proceeded down the runway, we would have been home in a matter of hours and happy to sleep in our own beds. But those hours would have caused the pilots to go beyond their federally mandated hour quota.
What do you do when you find yourself in a situation with competing priorities where one set overrides the other? Well, watching the passengers as we deplaned trying to make sense of what was happening, why it was happening, and what was to happen next, proved a veritable potpourri of approaches to unexpected change. Some people raced immediately to the desk at the gate and insisted on knowing their options, others worked to create a coalition of irate passengers who then stormed the desk and made a series of demands, and some made themselves comfortable and figured they would just wait for the announcements to begin. We all know how frustrating travel delays can be, so any of those reactions may not be all that surprising.
But there was one other approach. One person responded, rather than reacted, to this situation. She was standing near me and I saw her step away from the crowd, peruse the situation, and then approach several groups to ask the same question, “What do you want to know right now?” I overheard many different responses, including: “What’s happening to our luggage?”; “When is the flight rescheduled to?”; “Can we get food or hotel vouchers?”; and “What resources are available to us if we stay in the airport overnight?” Armed with these questions, she approached the desk and I heard her calmly explain that there were some common concerns. She then urged them to make an announcement so people had some information with which to make a plan.
Within 10 minutes, this woman had changed the dynamics of the crowd. She must have known that information vacuums and lack of control breed fear and frustration. Though the airline’s priorities trumped the passengers’, this woman recognized what was in her circle of influence and took diplomatic action on behalf of a somewhat unruly crowd.
Reminded of the power of operating from one’s circle of influence, the Luminaries on this trip followed suit. Rather than stand in line to find out about vouchers or alternate flights – neither of which would actually change the situation – we decided to take advantage of what we did have; an entire bag of airplane pillows and about 20 blankets. Who can make the most comfortable bed? The best pillow? The best barrier for the lights and sounds coming from the terminal? In other words, we stepped into our own circles of influence and controlled what we could – our attitudes. Cement airport floors and dirty and hard, but the opportunity to practice calm during chaos was invaluable.
Hopefully you find your own version of a canceled flight (without the dirty cement floors) to practice intentionally managing change and yourself. The opportunities to lead change, and change leadership are everywhere!