After taking my seat on a recent flight I noticed the Captain walking down the aisle to the coach seating area to talk with the passengers.  It caught my attention because it was so unusual.  Of course, my first internal reaction was, “what is wrong that is going to delay the flight?”  Nice optimism right?  As it turns out, the Captain wanted to greet his passengers, give us some information about the de-icing procedure that was going to be taking place and answer any questions we might have for him.  It was such a contrast to most of my other flights that I could not help but be impacted.

Throughout the flight, the Captain continued to engage the passengers with information, if they were interested, by inviting them to tune into one of the planes broadcast channel.  He was mindful about not imposing on everyone on board by giving people a choice to listen.  We had been given a heads up that upon approaching our destination we would be experiencing some turbulence due to the strong winds.  This wise man invited us to listen to a briefing on what causes turbulence and perfectly timed it to distract passengers who may have been frightened.  His leadership was so remarkable that I had to speak with him after the flight to learn more about how he developed those skills. Ok, you might be thinking I am a performance improvement geek.  Perhaps…..and I am fascinated by human behavior and the impact it has on others.

What I watched this Captain do is take charge of his flight, his cargo and his crew in such a way that led to all of us being more engaged in the flight and with one another.  I felt valued as a customer and a passenger and I could see that same sense of being valued in the actions of the flight attendants; they were engaged in providing the same level of service that the Captain was demonstrating by his leadership.

Contrast this to another recent flight to the West coast.  Our flight was delayed by over an hour.  We finally boarded and sat there waiting and waiting to take off.  It felt like a long time because we were already an hour behind schedule.  People were worried about making their connections and getting home at a reasonable time.  Other than passengers talking and the flight attendants giving their directions, there was no communication with the passengers.  This continued as the plane made its way to the runway and through take off.  After taking off we hit some of the worst turbulence I have ever experienced.  The passengers were caught completely off guard and many were frightened as they gripped their arm rests trying to stay in their seats.  We were given no warning from the cockpit, as we had not heard so much as a hello from them.

Once the plane stopped bouncing around, the co-pilot came on the broadcast system to give us some details about the flight.  His tone of voice sounded bored and dis-engaged.  I looked around the plane when he was done to see how many of the passengers he might have put to sleep.  In case I had imagined his bored tone of voice, I asked another passenger how the c0-pilot sounded to him.  His replied in a similar fashion, surprised at how tuned out the co-pilot sounded.  I was so aware of his tone that I do not recall what he was saying.  The impact was as remarkable as my earlier experience, only not in such a positive way.  The passengers tuned one another out, except for a few.  The flight attendants did their job fine, but without the level of engagement from my earlier flight.  This was a reflection of the demonstrated leadership style of the people in the cockpit.

Leaders create emotional contagion within seconds of showing up.  People pick up on their moods, catching and feeling emotions similar to how the leader is feeling.  We outwardly demonstrate this emotional contagion and take it with us as we leave the presence of a leader, sharing that same emotional contagion with others, perhaps even our customers.  This phenomenon impacts employees and customers alike.  What I witnessed in my two flight experiences was two distinct leadership styles which impacted the engagement of the passengers and co-workers in very different ways.  It is a powerful phenomenon.

Leadership and Engagement