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How to Be a Leader in Twenty Minutes: Lessons from a Delayed Flight

July 22nd, 2015

Air travel during the best of times can be a drag– but it’s especially challenging on summer weekends.

I recently endured one of those long, drawn-out delays at an East Coast airport. A broad band of thunderstorms was moving through the southeast and central states, causing both take-off and arrival delays.

I sat in the back row at the gate and watched the passengers booked on the first of three flights to Chicago. The flight was already delayed by forty-five minutes and the new departure time came and went. A lone agent, working two gates simultaneously, had no updates until he announced the inevitable: the first flight to Chicago was cancelled, and the second was delayed.

About a hundred passengers from the two flights mobbed the ticket counter for re-routing, demanding answers. I called the airline’s customer service number and waited until the delayed flight boarded and the re-routed passengers left. The third flight to Chicago was now delayed. I started a new line at the counter.

Another passenger joined me in forming the new line. He introduced himself as Mark, and we shared information on our respective flight alerts to Chicago, and our options for connecting flights once we got there. With the lone agent now loading gate-checked bags onto the plane at the adjacent gate, there was no official information source onsite.

Passengers approached us at the empty gate counter, and Mark shared his airline alerts with them. A line started to form in front of him, and passengers started referring other travelers to Mark for information, even though he had no official role. Mark even announced a gate change alert, and like the Pied Piper, he led passengers to the new gate assignment before it was officially announced.

Mark demonstrated five behaviors that work for more than just messed-up travel plans. They’re good practice for business leaders, too. Here’s what he did:

  • He gathered as much information as he could from his own sources
  • He validated his information against other information sources
  • He calmly shared his information and updates with others
  • He made decisions based on the information he had gathered
  • He took action and called others to the same action

These five behaviors influenced how Mark handled himself, his information and his relationships in a critical situation. As a result, he emerged as a leader in less than twenty minutes, with people he had never met before.

When an unplanned situation arise in an airport, on the job or with a customer, people look for leadership, not management. The first step to managing the problem is leading the people.