Recently I was on a Delta Airlines flight from Toronto to Atlanta when I witnessed a great display of leadership which caused a plane full of angry people to chill out, feel taken care of, and even have a couple of good laughs.  Here’s what happened, here’s why it worked, and what you can imitate from it.

The Scenario:
We were waiting to push back from the gate when we were alerted of a problem; something was wrong with the airplane door and it wouldn’t close. Apparently an open door on a jet plane is enough to keep you from taking off. Go figure. When the initial announcement was made that we needed to wait for a mechanic to come and assess the situation it set off a chain of predictable reactions; groans, complaints, and mutters among the passengers who were trying to get home or make tight connections.

A couple of minutes later the Captain emerges from the cockpit and while standing in the isle makes this announcement:
“Folks, we are just waiting for the mechanic to arrive and I want to keep you informed as to what’s happening. I know there’s nothing worse than sitting on an airplane without any information so I want to make sure you know what’s going on.”

There were five things the pilot did here which helped the situation.
1. Face time – The Pilot came out of the cockpit and gave us a face to the voice over the intercom. Its easy to be angry at a voice or an email but it’s harder to be angry at someone when we can see their face. Whenever your organization is facing a tough time or going through a period of change remember this lesson. It’s important that leaders get regular face to face time with their people.

2. Empathy – The pilot recognized that waiting on an airplane is not a fun thing. This mere acknowledgment communicates empathy. It helps passengers feel understood and helps calm agitated feelings. It also makes it easier to trust because when we feel someone can relate to us, we are more apt to trust them. Be sure to express empathy with your employees when they are facing difficult situations or having to grind through unpleasant tasks.

3. Communication – We crave information because it helps us process and regulate what we should do next. A lot of leaders (and airline pilots) make this mistake and underestimate the need for continual information especially during times of change or crisis. If you are not communicating constantly with your team, they will fill in the gap with their own thoughts and perceptions, some of which will be completely false.

The next announcement the pilot made was a couple of minutes later and it went like this:
“I just want all of you to know that if we can’t get this problem fixed we have another flight out of here in a couple of hours and we almost have all of you re-booked on that flight. It looks like the majority of you are still going to be able to make your connections.”

4. Anticipate Stressors – This announcement was huge because it answered the questions everyone was asking inside their heads such as, “How am I going to get to Atlanta?” and “What about my connecting flight?” The ability to answer people’s questions before they ask them is an important leadership skill. This helped dissipate some stress and gave you the feeling that Delta was really working hard at taking care of their customers. As a leader you have to anticipate which questions and issues your staff or customers are worried about and find ways to speak to those concerns.

The Pilot came on again with another update:
“I just wanted to let you know that the mechanic is working on the problem and hopefully he will be able to get this fixed so we can depart, but in the meantime sit back, relax, enjoy the incredible service from our wonderful flight attendants. You’re warm, you have the best seat in the house, and … you’re lucky!”

At this the entire plane erupted in laughter and then he added:

“I probably went too far on the lucky comment didn’t I?”

Again more laughter.

5. Use of Humor – Any lingering anger was evaporated by the pilot’s use of humor. Because he had already established a great rapport with the passengers by constantly coming out of the cockpit and appearing before us, he was able to help us find humor in the situation. Humor is an effective way to dissolve stress and should be a part of every manager’s toolkit.

This story ends with the mechanic fixing the door and us taking off about an hour behind schedule. I have to say it was the best mechanical delay I have ever had to sit through. Great job Delta, and great demonstration of leadership Captain whoever you are.