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Everyday Leadership

It was shaping up to be one of those I’ll-never-fly-this-airline-again nightmares. Our flight home over the holidays was already nearly two hours behind schedule when, moments after boarding, we hit another snag: The plane needed a last-minute repair. The cabin groaned at the news. Then something unusual happened: The pilot appeared. He walked the aisles, looking his unhappy, impatient customers right in the eye and answering their questions.

It was shaping up to be one of those I’ll-never-fly-this-airline-again nightmares. Our flight home over the holidays was already nearly two hours behind schedule when, moments after boarding, we hit another snag: The plane needed a last-minute repair. The cabin groaned at the news. Then something unusual happened: The pilot appeared. He walked the aisles, looking his unhappy, impatient customers right in the eye and answering their questions.

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Forty-five minutes later, we were first in line for take-off when it happened again – another repair, another delay. As we taxied back to the gate, you could feel the passengers’ anger and anxiety. Instead of hiding in the cockpit, our pilot entered the cabin again, got on the p.a., and told us what was wrong with the wing flap, what was being done about it, and the possible outcomes. The news wasn’t good – we might be stuck in Atlanta for the night — but getting so much info, more than I’d ever gotten during a delay, made the inconvenience easier to swallow.

As he walked the aisles a second time, apologizing for the delay and explaining how flaps help the plane fly, I realized this was a textbook example of how to lead when things go awry. And sadly, just how rare this is. Think of all the CEOs, managers, and politicians who disappear at the first whiff of trouble. No surprise, really. It’s not easy facing customers when you’ve ticked them off.

Our captain was a natural, though. He not only nipped a potential passenger riot in the bud, he also won over a tough crowd with his candor and charm. As unlucky as we felt to be on a thrice-delayed flight, we felt fortunate to have flown with him. (Yes, we eventually made it home that night.)

Like any organization, Delta needs effective leaders on the front lines as well as in the executive suites. Take it from a customer, this guy’s the real deal. I don’t remember his name unfortunately, but I’m sure the airline can locate the captain of flight 1811 from Atlanta to Chicago on December 28.

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About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug

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