The Power of Personal Presence

Here was the scene. About 250 unhappy travelers were all gathered in a crowded departure lounge in Atlanta. Weather and traffic snarls on the East Coast were playing havoc with getting equipment and people where they needed to be.

Tensions were running high and lines were running long. Our flight was already an hour late. The plane was at the gate and the pilots had just arrived. Catering and cleaning were done, but the cabin crew was seriously delayed and there were no others available. This was a perfect storm for customer complaints, angry tweets, travelers’ rage and lost brand value. What we got was a great demonstration of the power of personal presence.

The young woman who was working the gate was overmatched from the get-go. A single agent can barely get a flight away at the best of times. Despite her best attempts at apology and information, she was losing ground fast. Then, his safety checks completed, the captain came off the plane and up to the check-in desk.

So here are some powerful lessons in personal presence as modeled by a Delta pilot on a stormy night in Atlanta.

Be present.

Show up. The pilot could easily have hidden out in the plane and had a nap. After all, his job is to fly the plane. Instead, once the safety checks were done, he came to the front desk to help. His view was that he was the senior company representative on site and that it would not have been right to leave a lone, overwhelmed gate agent to face an increasingly cranky mob. Simply by bringing his uniform, his face and his voice to the situation, he made a difference.

Accountability, Clarity and Calm

The captain’s tone was more accountable than apologetic and he was clear about what he was going to do. “We can only respond to the kind of weather blowing across the region. Give me a few minutes while I make some calls to other pilots and people I know in ops. I will let you know what I do as soon as possible.” He provided clear updates as soon as he had them, even if it was not good news.

Although he expressed his frustration with the weather conditions, not once did the captain say, “It is not our fault,” even indirectly. He did take personal accountability for flight safety, even if it meant further delay. In the face of a predictable cast of travelers who wanted to blame the airline, make themselves special or just vent, he remained calm and present for whatever conversation came to the desk.

Use humor, not sarcasm.

Another temptation in a high-stress situation is to use irony or sarcasm by pointing the finger at “those guys at HQ.” Instead, the captain used humor to create a team spirit in the departure lounge. “OK, folks, I have an update. I do not think you will like it any better than I do. So before I tell you, I want everyone to get ready to go ‘Oh, no!’ all at once. Do you want to practice it once or twice first?” The news was not good, but the edge was removed as the humor gave us all time to prepare.

The impact was remarkable. Near where I was sitting I saw people entertaining other people’s kids for parents who needed a break. There were offers to give up seats, share food and even share electrical plugs (which as all travelers know is coin of the realm for those with electronics in airports).

In the end, we were five hours late leaving. The captain, who had been at the desk for four hours, apologized for the delay and thanked us for our business and for our understanding one last time before we got off the plane at 1 a.m. in Little Rock. Not one person took his frustration out on the crew. In fact, I think I heard more than the usual passenger “thank yous” on the way out the door.

Not bad for a guy who could have taken a nap in the cockpit.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, July 15, 2013.