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Business-Class Leadership: 3 Tips From a Delayed Flight

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How often have you heard “I’m sorry you feel that way” in response to a customer service issue? This ineffective response reveals a lack of empathy, or the inability to see the issue from customer’s point of view.

I recently witnessed one of the best examples of leading with empathy from a pilot at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.

The flight was weather-delayed twice, first at the gate for refueling and de-icing, and then on the tarmac. Only two runways were cleared of snow, resulting in a backlog of 30 planes awaiting take-off. We had only a short window to be cleared for departure before we exceeded the de-icing time limits. If we were directed back to the terminal, 200 passengers would be spending the night at the airport.

Despite the odds against our being satisfied customers, the pilot’s ability to lead with empathy achieved extraordinary results. Here are three tips, based on his actions.

Provide Updates from the Other Person’s Point of View

The pilot shared five updates during our tarmac delay. Like many leaders, pilots often decide what information passengers need to know from their own point of view. This captain told us what we needed to know from a passenger’s point of view.

Apologize and Appreciate

The pilot apologized for the unavoidable situation and used inclusive language: “None of us can control the weather. Maybe we will someday, but today, we are all dealing with this snow and ice together.” Most importantly, he sincerely expressed appreciation for our cooperation in each update. He addressed us as intelligent equals, not as customers to be appeased.

Be Visible and Approachable

It may be standard procedure, but I have never seen a pilot come out of the cockpit, not once, but twice, to check the condition of the wings personally.  When he came into the aircraft cabin a second time to check the wings for ice, a passenger said, “Thank you — take all the time you need for safety checks.”

The pilot’s obvious empathy with his passengers made us empathic with him and the challenges of his job. We landed a few hours later with applause for the pilot. Passengers shook his hand as they left the plane.

Two hundred people who could have created a customer service nightmare for the airline were instead appreciating that pilot for his leadership.

It’s not the first delayed flight I’ve ever experienced, but it was the first time I have flown with a captain who understood the power of empathy in leading others through a challenging situation.

Success educator Steven Covey noted that when leaders show genuine empathy, “defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”

Whether you’re leading from a cockpit or an office, take your cues from this pilot. Start with empathy.