What an airplane crash can teach us about leadership during a time of crisis

It was almost midnight on December 29, 1972, and the Eastern Air Lines flight 401 coming from New York was about to land in Miami.

As the crew started to extend the landing gear, they noticed that a green light identifying that the nose gear is properly locked in the “down” position, had not illuminated. And it got them worried.

So the experienced Captain Rob Loft requested to abort the landing and enter a holding pattern at 2,000 feet.

With the autopilot turned on, the entire crew started to focus on that green light that didn’t illuminate.

While the cockpit crew removed the light assembly, the Second Office was sent down to the avionics bay beneath the flight deck to confirm if the landing gear was indeed down.

But, what no one noticed while all this was happening, is that the autopilot had inadvertently been switched off and that the plane was gradually descending.

A few minutes later, the airplane crashed.

The heartbreak of this story is that nothing was wrong with the landing gear and the indicator light’s bulb had simply burnt out.

101 people lost their lives mainly because of a burnt-out light bulb and a Captain who steered the entire’s crew attention to this detail while neglecting his responsibility to keep the airplane in the air.

Many aviation lessons have come out of this tragic crash. But this event also provides great lessons for leaders faced with challenges.

Your main responsibility as a leader and manager is to keep the team on track with the overall strategy and goals… or in other words, it’s your job to keep the plane flying.

Don’t let small fire drills, burned-out light bulbs, or details of tasks or projects distract you from your main responsibility.

Assign team members (i.e. crew members) to those things instead. Let them own the problems AND the solutions.

Your job is to fly the plane and to act as a guide. Not to solve everything yourself. 

This is particularly important in current times because we’re constantly faced with new challenges. Challenges that we haven’t seen before or have prepared for.

As you’re going through your days this week and in the coming weeks, remember to keep the plane in the air!

And if you find this challenging and you notice that you’re often caught up in the details or that your team members aren’t taking ownership, then know that there is a solution to that.

You don’t have to figure this out yourself. 

My world and career shifted when I started working with a coach. What I thought was just pure talent or years of experience that great leaders had, were actually known frameworks and tools that anyone, including myself, could learn and apply.

Realizing this made a huge difference to me and it is what fuels my passion for leadership coaching and training today.

There is no need to grow as a leader by yourself. It’s way faster and easier to learn proven frameworks and tools and to learn not only from your own mistakes but also from the mistakes others have made.

If this is the time for you to step up and to invest in yourself and your career, then let’s have a chat.

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