Remembering 911 – Leadership in the Face of Danger

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The airport looked like skid row with better lighting. People were strewn about everywhere, in various stages of restlessness, fear and exhaustion. Every television was tuned to the same news and images.

As the pilots and their team of flight attendants, began making their way from a briefing room to their aircraft, people began to notice. Like a human wave at a baseball game, people started to stand up as they walked by. Seeing pilots and flight attendants walking through the terminal pulling small carryon bags behind them, meant only one thing. The ban had been lifted; we were going home.

A few people smiled, a couple even clapped, but most of us just stood there, our mouths open, eyes wet and a lump, the size of a kickball, forming in the pits of our stomachs.

Michelle and I looked on with everyone else, not sure what to think or how to feel. On one hand, we were eager and relieved. But on the other, we were petrified.

It took another hour before we started boarding. Michelle and I sat in our little corner of the terminal; a corner that we claimed the moment we got off the airplane three days ago. We watched as everyone else around us got up, repacked their lives into overstuffed carryon bags and got in line. When I started to get up, to join the masses, Michelle tightened her grip around my arm and I relaxed. We had spent the last twenty-four hours discussing and debating the possibility of driving back to Boston – instead of flying, and she wanted to talk about it again.

Soon it was our turn to check in and slowly, reluctantly, she agreed. I will never forget the feeling of vulnerability we felt when we stepped off the jetbridge and into the airplane. It was as if we were stepping into our own coffins. Michelle’s grip on my arm tightened.

A young flight attendant stood in the galley and greeted us, trying her best not to look as scared and apprehensive as we were. Behind her, one of the beverage carts had been pulled out from its normal spot and placed in front of the closed, cockpit door. It was so obviously out of place, that it was hard not to stare at it and all of its implications.

The airplane was eerily quiet as we made our way to our seats; one row behind the emergency. Michelle opted for the middle and I took the isle. What happened next, is the most extraordinary thing I have ever witnessed, and the reason for this writing.

As we began taxing to the runway, the captain began to speak over the intercom. He started by introducing himself and his crew. He was Captain Rick and his first officer was John. Then he told us about the flight attendants; about how long they had been working for the airline and some of the awards they had won. Then he started to tell us to sit back and relax, to enjoy the flight, but then he trailed off, not finishing the statement. We all looked around at each other; both at the absurdity of his statement – as if we could just sit back and relax – and then with uncertainty. What happened? Why did he stop talking?

A few minutes later the door to the cockpit opened slowly. Collectively we all gasped and held our breath. Michelle’s fingernails dug into my arm and she buried her face into my shoulder. The flight attendants looked back at the open door, just as bewildered as everyone else.

Captain John poked his head out and smiled at us. We must have looked horrified because he quickly put both hands in the air, palms forward and tried to reassure us.

“It’s okay,” he said. “Everything is okay.” He then reached for the microphone above the flight attendants head and for a few minutes, told us all about himself. He told us about his wife and kids. He told us how long he’d been flying, that he played guitar, loved 80’s hair bands, and that he too, was scared.

He spoke those last words quietly; deliberately and with a strong jaw; as if he was defiant in spite of his fears.

He looked like he wanted to say more, but didn’t. He hung up the microphone and, with a big grin took a moment to look people in the eye.

“Let’s go home,” he said stepping back into the cockpit; then we heard him lock the door.

Authors note: I heard a true version of this story a few years ago and often think about what it must have been like to fly that day. To be one of the first passengers or flight attendants. I try to imagine what it must have been like to be a pilot that day – knowing, just days before, nearly a dozen other pilots had been made to fight for their lives, by their own passengers.

I think about what it took for Captain Rick to step out of the safety of his locked cockpit – to lead from the front. That’s what he was doing: He wasn’t just confronting his own fears, he was leading in the face of them.

Although I’ve never been in this type of life and death leadership situation, I know what it’s like to be anxious, nervous, overwhelmed, apprehensive, hesitant and even scared, when charged with leading others. I know what it’s like to want to hide in my office. To let important, sometimes even urgent calls, to go to voice mail. I know what it’s like contemplating calling out sick… or taking the stairs, just to avoid dealing with these feelings and the people and situations that bring them on. In the end, every time I’ve struggled with leadership, I was struggling with fear.

All the pilots and flight attendants, from all over the country- heck, all over the world, that faced their fears that day – deserve a huge round of applause for unbelievable bravery. Captain Rick, however, having the intestinal fortitude (the guts) to leave the locked safety of his cockpit, to lead – despite his fears – wasn’t just bravery, it was leadership.

-Ralph Peterson is the CEO of Ralph Peterson Consulting, [a management training and development firm that specializes in Long-Term Care], an Efficiency Expert, Professional Speaker, Syndicated Columnist and Author of the books, “Managing When No One Wants To Work,” (Four-Nineteen Press, 2014) & “Adventures in Dietland: How to Win at the Game of Dieting from Former Fat Guy,” (Four-Nineteen Press, 2017). Contact him at (Twitter: @ralphpeterson08)

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