Lessons from a Tragedy

Jim Hinshaw
Contributing Writer
Improvement Professional, President & Sales

By now we have all heard of the Southwest airline flight in April that had an engine explode, sending shrapnel into the body of the plane, shattering a window and nearly sucking a passenger out that same window. She later died from her injuries, despite the efforts of other passengers and crew members who administered first aid.

But what you may not know is the back story, how the pilot showed remarkable courage and calm in the face of unexpected disaster. We can learn several elements of leadership from Tammie Jo Shults, a former Navy fighter pilot.

She had a vision early on in high school. She attended a lecture given by a retired male colonel on aviation in her senior year, she was the only one present. The colonel even asked if she was in the right room. She said she certainly was and intended to become a pilot. He scoffed, told here there are no women professional pilots (this was 1979). She became a Navy Lieutenant commander, and ended up flying for Southwest, much to the delight of 140+ passengers on her flight that day. So the first lesson, it may seem like there is no easy path, maybe not a path at all. The true leaders know that you will find a path or make one, easy or not. Tammie followed her dream even when others said it could not happen.

Tammie said when the engine exploded, she praised her co-pilot, Mr. Ellisor, for being easy to work with.

He described the moment of the explosion, telling ABC the plane banked to the left. “We were passing through about 32,000 feet when we had a, a large bang and a rapid decompression,” he said. “The aircraft yawed and banked to the left, a little over more, a little over 40 degrees and we had a, a very severe vibration from the number one engine that was shaking everything.

“And, that all kind of happened all at once.”

They had to work together (and fast) to get the plane down quickly.

The control tower reported that she was amazingly calm during the crisis, no drama from her at all. Here is part of the dialogue with the control tower as she was in a rapid descent: Air traffic control: “Injured passengers, OK. And is your airplane physically on fire?”  Shults: “No, it’s not on fire. But part of it is missing. They said there’s a hole and that someone went out.”

I know that even dogs sense emotion, and can read your tension right through the leash. The other people involved, customers or employees, will read your emotion as well, and will mirror back what you show, calm or excited. So the second lesson is to not let the situation take control over your emotions. We really do not know what the day may bring, and certainly cannot control the future. What we can control is our response to the events of the day.

Tammie followed the same path of compassion that Sully showed when he landed his plane in the river outside of New York. He went back thru the plane to be sure everyone was off, he was last off the aircraft. Tammie went back to speak to each passenger personally, thanked the control tower for their help. She genuinely cared for the people that were on her flight. True leaders show compassion, here is why that is critical today. Studies have shown that two thirds of the employees feel that their boss doesn’t truly care about them. They begin to feel like their job may not be that important, what they do may not matter at all. They may feel like they are done at the company. It may be that their bosses really do care, but just don’t show it or even know how to show it.

Finally, Tammie showed that she had a leadership position based on personal power, not her title. When you have a leader who cares about the team and the customers, it shows in times of crisis rather than when things are going well. Tammie was quoted as saying that being a pilot is an “opportunity to witness for Christ on almost every flight”. She showed her caring side on this flight.

How does this apply to us? First, get a vision firmly in mind on what you want your company to look like in the future. Share that with employees, vendors and yes, even customers. Then work hard to make that vision a reality. Second, let everyone on the payroll know that they are a part of that vision, and what that do matters. Thank them for their efforts, help them when they are challenged, celebrate victories. A call on a Friday afternoon can do wonders for morale and can help glue that customer to you.

Most importantly, don’t react in fear when something unfortunate and unexpected happens. Keep calm, consider the possible outcomes, put together a plan to get past the opportunity. And realize this was only one of dozens of opportunities that you will have to cope with in business. As the Seals say: No easy days! My apologies to the Navy if I got that saying wrong, but the message is accurate. Trust this, we will all be tested, both in business and our personal lives. That is why Tammie’s faith in God was a critical part of her life and one key to her success as a great pilot. She put first things first.

Thanks for listening, we’ll talk later.

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