What An Emergency Plane Landing Taught Me About Leadership

By Andy Drish

“We’re going to rerouting to Ft. Collins. We’re running low on fuel and, with this storm, we’re not going to be able to land in Denver anytime soon,” the pilot said over the intercom.

Ugh. That meant it’d be another couple hours until I got home, which was the last thing I wanted after being on the road for a week.

Little did I know, I was about to get a surprise lesson in leadership.

There were times running The Foundation when everything felt chaotic. Business is simple in the beginning. All I had to do was master my own behaviors and actions.

As we grew, it got more and more complex. When we had a team of 12 people to manage, it was a whole different game.

One thing we struggled with was painting a clear vision for our team to follow. I noticed when the team had clarity on where we were going, things worked much smoother.

When they didn’t have clarity, we got lost spinning our wheels but not making much forward progress.

Back to the story on the plane…

Our plane landed in Ft. Collins and the captain told us to sit tight, we’d have to sit here for 2-3 hours while the storm passed. And, due to FAA regulations, they couldn’t let us off the plane to stretch or get food.

I settled into my seat. Frustrated, but knowing there was nothing I could do. So I took a deep breath, surrendered to the moment and closed my eyes.

Twenty minutes later, the captain came back on and offered to let people get off in Ft Collins if they didn’t want to wait. I was surprised about 20 people decided to stand up and take this offer.

I noticed how chaotic it felt. Some people who weren’t leaving were standing up and were in the way. Others who were ready to go were taking their time getting luggage. And a handful of people were in line for the bathroom.

Then something fascinating happened.

The captain came back on the intercom and said, “Ladies and gentlemen – I just got word from Denver. We have about a 30 minute window where we can land. If we can leave right now, we can make it and we won’t have to stay here for another two hours.”

Immediately, everything changed. People who were staying on the plane sat down. The people departing quickly got their luggage and left almost immediately. And within a few minutes, everyone was buckled in and ready to go.

“Fascinating,” I thought.

It felt so symbolic of running a team.

When I reflected on the situation, here’s what I learned:

– Teams must have a clear direction, otherwise time get wasted on things that don’t matter. When there was no place to go and we thought we had two hours to kill, nobody focused on anything. The moment they had direction, everything changed.

– Constraints are a good thing. (Even when it doesn’t seem like it.) Constraints breed creativity. And they force us to make decisions that matter. When we only had a 20 minute window to make it, it forced everyone to focus and do their own part. They didn’t need to be managed or told what to do. Everyone knew. And they did it.

– Harnessing these dynamics lead to immense progress. There is power in having a large group of people focused on one single outcome. The more I can learn to harness this as a leader, the more power I’ll have to create things in this lifetime.

Amazing how in every moment of challenge, there’s an opportunity for someone to step up and lead.

This lesson has stuck with me and whenever I feel our team chaotic or focused on the wrong things, I always come back to this story to recenter us on the vision that matters.