Sunday, October 18, 2015

Exodus: redux

"Not all leaders occupy leadership positions.  Not all those in leadership positions are true leaders."  TR

For five long years, our cobbled-together tribe has wandered in the desert following the man who joined us, a man who claimed to know the way to an oasis.  Despite the protestation and lament of many among us, his guidance took us in every direction except the right one.  His plan changed periodically. We would chart a new course and revive our hope that tomorrow would be "the day".  But that tomorrow never came.  Hope seemed beyond revival.  

Now, just a few weeks after he left us in disgrace, that man's replacement has rekindled hope. Our new leader has joined us where we live and work, asking our thoughts and listening to our opinions about our progress thusfar.  His manner is reassuring, his approach collegial. He doesn't have all the answers, so he asks many questions. He listens; he hears. He observes; he sees. He seems to understand the practical and emotional obstacles between us and the oasis that we seek.  When a true leader takes the lead, s/he instills confidence and belief and hope and trust. 

Having shared our reality, he smiles sincerely and asks us to join him; no gimmicks, no unsupported promises, no games. 

Our Flight Attendant crew of 11 followed such a leader last night as we boarded our flight from Houston to Sao Paulo.  Who could know that the peace of our 10 hour flight would be repeatedly interrupted by a middle-aged man and his adult son who bore the same name, Greg, Sr. & Greg, Jr.?  They were seated in a centersection row of 3 seats in the D zone of our 30-day old Dreamliner (can you smell it?), along with a third man, unknown to them (34D, E & F)

From the start of the flight (and before boarding according to other customers who reported later), the two men's behaviors were an attention-getting combination of odd and provocative. They spoke to one another as if passing secrets. They continually retrieved and replaced luggage from the overhead bins.   They seemed reluctant to make eye contact. Their movements were staccato and tentative.  Experience told us that they might be altered somehow by alcohol or medication or that their peculiarities were attributable to something pathological. But there was no way to know. 

Just after takeoff, the younger Greg, holding his backpack to his chest, rose and moved quickly, purposefully toward the front of the airplane. He passed through C zone, opened the cabin-separator curtain and traversed B zone before entering the A zone lavatory aft of Door 1R. Two crewmembers saw and moved to stop him but he was locked in the lavatory too quickly. When he emerged, a male F/A intercepted him and escorted him toward his seat (34E). I noticed that our onboard leader, ISM Roxanne, was paralleling their movement aft in the opposite aisle. 

Upon reaching the galley at Doors 3, they stepped inside to speak privately with Greg. The male F/A spoke, both informing and asking simultaneously. From outside the galley, I noticed Roxanne allowing the other F/A to lead while she quietly observed. Young Greg protested that he just wanted to use the restroom (he passed 4 of them on his way to A zone) and was "embarrassed" by our actions.  The male F/A departed to resume his other duties. Roxanne accompanied Greg to his seat and spoke to both he and his father. She did so in such a way that those unaware of events would have had no inclination that the conversation was unusual. 

It was clear that the unrelated man in 34F was uncomfortable. He sat with his back to his seatmates as much as space allowed. Yet young Greg still managed to spill and splatter food on him. After a time, I was able to relocate the man to another seat, an action which seemed to antagonize young Greg. 

He found Roxanne completing her duty free responsibilities in the mid-galley and insisted to her that I disrespected him by assisting the other customer. His tone and posture were threatening. By contrast, Roxane's were set to defuse:  hands behind back, eye contact, serious but relaxed face. "What would you like us to do for you, Greg?", she asked calmly. She did not give him any fuel for escalation. She also strategically used "quiet" to her advantage. Greg felt compelled to speak, to fill the void. 

"You know, I fly you guys all the time.  I know the rules.  I was involved in an assault on Alaska Airlines once and they..."

Involved in an assault?  Was he LOOKING for an escalation?  He felt "embarrassed"?  "Disrespected"?  Those are key words in the "get something for nothing" world of chronic airline complainers (those who seek compensation by alleging maltreatment). 

Roxanne continued her steady, even-handed handling of the situation, notifying and updating our flight crew every step of the way.  All avenues of handling were open.  But we were on the path of peaceful resolution, led by a calm, calming master of the method. 

The night wore on.  Call bells rang.  Several more little "blips" came from 34DE.  Older Greg, "My toe is broken."  "I can't stand the pain." "I need my pain medication."  "Look at my toe."  (Ever had a russet potato disappear in the refrigerator only to be found months later?  Yeah.)  Younger Greg was in a semi-conscious state for much of the night.  Even with three seats available to the two of them, a significant portion of his upper body protruded into the aisle on aircraft right, effectively blocking the pathway.  Each time the crew responded to a call bell, each time we needed to pass for our periodic water/welfare checks, we had to physically move him.

All night long, we responded following Roxanne's lead and, each time, the calm returned.  Even when she was on break, the calm pace and tone that Roxanne had set prevailed.  

Several customers seated nearby complained in Portuguese that the crew wasn't doing anything about the situation.  If they only knew how onerous other potential outcomes might be for everyone, them included, if we followed a different leader, a different path.  

We defused.  We calmed.  We never wavered or took unnecessary risk.  We were ready to do what was required.  Fortunately, what was required did not involve the handcuffs that we had readied, if needed.  It could have.  

The crew worked diligently all night to bring a successful resolution to the situation onboard. Appropriate arrangements were made for our arrival. Onward reservations have been scrutinized. It was a tedious but successful night thanks, in large part, to having the right leader at the right time. 

Five years later, 80,000+ of us are still wandering in the desert, searching for our oasis.  Our new, inspiring leader undoubtedly knows the way but had a personal setback this week. In social media, I noticed a get well wish cast in his direction which said "Got your back friendly".  When a true leader takes the lead, s/he instills confidence and belief and hope and trust. 

The right leader leads even when s/he is absent. 

We've been wandering for a while.  We can wander a week or two longer.  

I think we've found the right leader.

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