Let me briefly tell you the “Tale of Two Pilots” by way of illustrating a leadership principle you’ll need to master in the coming months.
I was on a plane flying through a storm system. The flight was bumpy and the skies outside the plane window were threatening. I had been on such flights before and wasn’t that concerned. What caused tension, though, was the manner of the pilot. He was tense. He explained nothing. He kept coming on the system telling us of changes. “We are going to move to 32,000 feet. Buckle your seat belts. Flight attendants be seated.” There was uncertainty in his voice. Again, he explained nothing.
A bit later, he announced he was going low. “It’s going to be bad. Tighten your seat belts.” Well, now the whole plane was tense. I saw people praying. Yet all of this was a response to the pilot’s manner, not anything actually happening on the plane. We were grateful to land and make an escape.
On the return flight, we flew through the back end of the same storm system. Yet this pilot brought a whole different spirit to the experience. “Good evening, folks. We’re going to have a fine flight to Washington, DC. Now, we are flying above some storm clouds and even though we aren’t actually in the storm we’ll get a few bumps from the huffing and puffing of that system. Settle in. Relax. I’ll tell you about changes I’ll make along the way to make you more comfortable. If you’re not happy, be sure to blame Sara, your flight leader. That’s what we do up here on the flight deck!”
Notice. Facts. Confidence. Guidance. Humor. Now, I’ll tell you that this second flight was far bumpier than the first. Yet there was greater peace on board. The pilot would say things like, “I think this will last just another ten minutes” or “I’m going to climb a bit to see if I can keep that red wine you’re drinking from sloshing onto your clothes.” The combination of facts, calm, and humor transformed the experience. We always knew what was happening. We always knew why. The pilot’s manner always set us at ease with every change.
Now, as we emerge from this Covid-19 season, you’re going to have to make changes. You are going to have to innovate. You’ll be flying some bumpy skies of your own. Hear me. What you want to avoid is the image of the terrified leader who is trying anything—ANYTHING!—to survive. This image forms when you make un-explained changes that people don’t understand. If the big goals that have always guided the firm are no longer in view and a new jerky path is being traveled, people will lose confidence, lose vision, and lose passion. This is often the beginning of the end.
So, always highlight the big goals and purposes. Then, make the changes you need to make, but narrate the reason for them along the way. Explain. Connect the dots. In fact, show that the innovations and re-directions are part of navigating the short-term so that the big long-term can be achieved. Leaders often assume people understand these things on their own. Not necessarily. You have to narrate, explain the path, justify the thinking, and make the connections. Then confidence and energy rise.
Be the second pilot in my story. Set people at ease. Narrate what they’re going through. Tell them we will get to the destination just fine. Have some fun while you do. You know the difference between my two pilots? The second was thinking about the experience of his passengers and working to make it better. The first was pretty much just locked in his own experience.
Great days are ahead. Keep thinking Leading Thoughts and let’s craft victories together.