How To Lead When Things Go Wrong

How to Lead When Things Go Wrong

I’m sitting in the Atlanta airport, cooling my heels, while I wait for Delta Airlines to figure out how to get me home.  My partner Phillip Van Hooser and I have just come from a week on the road, working with Leaders Ought to Know client Helena Chemical. I was just trying to get home when one of those inevitable events happens that plague the life of a road warrior like me:  the flight was delayed for mechanical problems.  Apparently there is a little switch that is misbehaving, and maintenance is going to need some time to repair it.
I’ve come to accept these delays as a part of life on the road, but I was really impressed with the way the Captain of our crippled flight handled the situation.  Just as we teach in Leaders Ought To Know, I saw him demonstrating great leadership during our difficulties. It is easy to be a leader when things are going right.  The real test is how to lead when things go wrong, and Captain Steve Smith stepped up in a way that was a credit to himself and to Delta.

#1. Apologize

The little switch that failed wasn’t his fault.  It really wasn’t anyone’s fault, unless there is a preventative maintenance system at Delta that needs a little beefing up.  Regardless, the Captain took personal responsibility and apologized, both personally and on behalf of Delta Airlines, for the inconvenience we were experiencing.

#2. Keep People Informed

Instead of assuming that we knew what was going on, he made frequent announcements about the status of the repair efforts. He knew that, in the absence of information, people tend to assume the worst.  When it became apparent that we were going to have to abandon our first plane, he told us why.  And even when we were put on another plane, one that was originally scheduled to go to Omaha, he told us that we’d have to offload the excess fuel before we could leave.

#3. Be Honest

Before we knew that we were going to get an alternate plane, he didn’t sugar-coat the situation.  He expressed confidence that Delta would find another plane for us, but he didn’t make up information to appease us.  He simply told us he didn’t know how long it would take.  By keeping us informed and by setting our expectations appropriately low, a crowd that could have gotten ugly was on his side.  We wanted the situation to be resolved, just like he did.

#4. Make It Right

With help from the gate crew and Delta’s flight control, we did get a new plane.  It looks like we’ll be taking off a couple of hours late, but my seat mate Dorothy and I (we had plenty of time to chat) are glad just to be going home.  We were even offered snacks in the boarding area while we waited.  It wasn’t the exact outcome any of us had hoped for, but we’re all pretty content. And the Captain gets a lot of credit for that.
Captain Steve Smith of DL1331 demonstrated, in a very tangible way, what it takes to be a leader when things don’t go as well as you expect.  Some good points all leaders should take to heart.
What about you? What do you recommend leaders do to lead well in less than optimum circumstances?

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