Sunday, March 30, 2014

Another Brush with Greatness

I'm very happy that I postponed my Sunday morning devotional walk around Rio de Janeiro today!

Bloomberg News is presenting an extensive profile of Sir Richard Branson, head of VIRGIN, businessman extraordinaire, and remarkable human being.

On one of my trips in 1994, I was scheduled to deadhead from Houston to New York in order to work our Madrid flight, later that evening.  Of course, I was wearing my Flight Attendant uniform, in preparation for my work assignment.  Luckily, I was upgraded to First Class on the A300 aircraft, to seat 4B.  Upgrades for crew were a rarity, as our frequent fliers in this highly competitive business market were courted with upgrades.  When I arrived at my seat, I couldn't help but notice the blond lion-maned gentleman who was to be my seatmate.  I gulped at the realization that I would be seated for the next 3-3.5 hours with Sir Richard Branson!

As I stowed my bags in the overhead compartment, I was startled by Branson's hearty greeting, "Hello!  How are you?".  (At the time, cellular telephones were a rarity and crew enjoyed the luxury of our First Class customers' attention during the always hectic pre-departure phase of flight.  It was still a surprise when a world-renowned businessman with a traytable already covered by important-looking paperwork took a moment to greet his traveling companion.)  "Very well, thank you. And you?"  What ensued was nothing short of remarkable.

Of course, businessmen are businessmen and the lion's share of the flight, Sir Richard spent studiously addressing his obligations.  However, he also prodigiously practiced his "human being skills", especially seizing the opportunity to make small talk during the meal service.  "Where are you going today?"  "How long have you been flying?"  "Have you always been a Flight Attendant?"  "How do you feel that you are treated at Continental?"  I've never been more pleasantly surprised or proven wrong.  My initial inclination on recognizing Sir Richard was that I would spend the flight in silence (OK with me!) as he addressed his rather global responsibilities.  Isn't being an important businessman a self-validating pursuit, after all?  Apparently not in this case.

As I astoundedly answered his many questions, Sir Richard became more and more enthralled to learn that I had been in management and had chosen to return to line flying.  His eyebrows arched noticeably (yes, both of them) when he learned that I'd been the youngest Station Manager in Continental's system when, at the age of 30, I was promoted to Manager, Airport Services in Honolulu.  Social pleasantry evolved into something more serious, more focused, as he pursued questioning my motivations.  He was actively assimilating my experience as a reference for his own businesses, there's simply no doubt.  I became acutely aware that his rise to greatness in business was no anomaly:  Sir Richard is a student of the human condition and does not discount any potential opportunity to increase his knowledge on the subject.

As he withdrew from our exchange, back into the world of big business, I withdrew into the shell-shocked realization of what had just transpired.  Even now, I marvel at the opportunities my career in the airline business have afforded me to rub shoulders with greatness.  Inevitably, our flight together reached its conclusion.  Our parting was as warm and memorable as our greeting, entirely attributable to the humanity of this remarkable human being.

I returned to my task at hand:  working as Spanish-speaker #1 to Madrid.  Sir Richard Branson returned to his task at hand:  building upon his legacy as one of the most successful businessmen in the world.  

But for a short time on our 3+ hour IAH/EWR flight together, we were just two guys, sharing and learning.

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