Leadership Lesson from a Turbulent Flight

My flight from Chicago to Las Vegas this afternoon provided a helpful illustration… I was sitting in the last row on the right aisle on a full flight. Across from me was a young woman who I couldn’t help but notice. Any time there was an odd sound or movement of the plane due to light turbulence, she sat up in her seat with a very concerned look on her face. When I say “concerned”, I mean panicked. She grabbed the seat in front of her (a bit to the dismay of the guy who was sitting in that seat, who couldn’t help but feel her presence) and strained to look out a window in the rows ahead (as ours were blocked by engines).  When the turbulence dissipated, she rested back in her seat until the next wayward bump or drop or sway appeared to torture her.

As we neared Las Vegas, the turbulence became more pronounced. If you fly a lot, it’s fair  to say our turbulence was strong but not extraordinary. Yet that didn’t stop the panicky seat grabber across the aisle from me. She was on full alert!  Once we landed, she hugged her seatmate with the passion of someone who just escaped death! I fully expected her to break out in applause and then kiss the floor when she exited the jet bridge!

For some reason this all made me giggle a bit inside. There was a day when I was a nervous flier so it’s not that I’m unsympathetic. It’s just that over the years, you learn things, right? Like what normal turbulence feels like and how the planes are designed to handle it. Like when it’s windy or hot or you’re going over mountains there’s more opportunity to have turbulence. That you’re statistically safer in the airplane than you are riding to the airport. With experience, you learn that this is not a situation worthy of panic. It’s just a bumpy flight on a windy arrival.

Experience allows you to calmly finish a Sudoku puzzle when the rookie is freaking out. Experience teaches you to watch the flight attendants. If they’re flipping, then it’s time to call for your mommy! But when the aft flight attendant was happily reading her People magazine while my fellow passenger was desperately holding the seat in front of her like it was the last life jacket on the Titanic, you learn to realize it’s just not a big deal.

Experience, as it turns out, is a big deal. In some industries (dare I say flight attendants in some cases?), seniority becomes an excuse to not work as hard. “We’ve paid our dues” could summarize the mindset. I don’t subscribe to that line of thinking. Rather, experience is a gift that gives us the excuse to be more productive and make less mistakes rather than just make excuses.

Experience can help you lead with peace and a clear mind since this isn’t your first day at the rodeo. Whether a seasoned passenger on a bumpy flight or the veteran bull rider getting on an animal named Vicious Tornado, experience provides perspective.

Are you freaking out today over a situation on a project or on your team? Maybe not on the outside, but on the inside do you feel like Vicious Tornado has been bucking through your digestive system?

Cast your gaze toward those with more experience. Watch how they react. Seek to learn what experience has taught them. And call back to the bumpy flights you’ve survived, whether on a plane or on projects. Experience can tell you when to get back to your Sudoku puzzle and when to get mommy on speed dial. 🙂

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