The other day I read in The Guardian about a man without the ability to walk who was made to drag himself off an airplane because a flight attendant told him that they could not get a wheelchair to him in time without causing flight delays. The man and his wife (they were taking a special trip for their anniversary), thought at first that the flight attendant was making a bad joke. When they realized she was serious, he tried to reason with her, explaining, in case it was somehow not already clear, that he needed the wheelchair to transport himself. He could not walk on his own. Alas, the flight attendant assured him that she understood perfectly, and that it was he who seemed to be confused. He was, in fact, being told to drag himself off the plane on his own.
Now, there are a lot of things wrong with this horrible incident, but I would like to focus on it from the lens of leadership failure. I consent that I may not have the full story here, but I do know that the outcome is a travesty. Here is what I suspect happened to get to that outcome. The flight attendant called for a wheelchair and got the response back that they were not going to get the wheelchair to the plane before the flight was due to take off again. So, in her mind, rather than interpret that to mean, Welp, I guess we’re going to have a flight delay, she thought to herself, Welp, I guess this guy is going to have to drag his body past twelve rows of gawking, dumbfounded passengers.
And that is precisely what happened. He and his wife, dragged him down the aisle and off the plane. A more humiliating experience is difficult to imagine.
I mean, the ignorance is extraordinary, yes, but specifically it is an absolute void of leadership. No one, not a person among them had the insight, courage or humanity to stand up and say, “Hold up. Let’s take a beat here. There is a better way.” Certainly, I question the crew on that flight, but at the risk of being too judgmental in my reaction to a story that has clearly struck a nerve with me, I also wonder (cautiously) what was happening with those other passengers.
Speaking up when we see injustice is a crucial component of being a good leader, and real leaders don’t clock out.
You may be thinking: It’s easy to cast stones. You don’t know what you would have done had you been in that position. You are absolutely, right, and as my wife pointed out to me, I don’t know what was going on with the other passengers on that plane. Certainly, for many of them, they were in a state of disbelief, desperately trying to make sense of what was happening, assuming there must be some reasonable explanation.
This is, in part, what I would like to take away from this painful story. When we hear about situations like this, we need to think about what we would do. Talk to our friends, colleagues, and children about what we would do. Help prepare ourselves and the people around us to do the right thing. Because, by God, I sure as hell hope I would have the modicum of decency to clear my throat and call out to stop such cruelty. Speaking up when we see injustice is a crucial component of being a good leader, and real leaders don’t clock out.
But back to examining the actions and inaction of the folks who were on the clock. That plane is a workplace, and with leadership development, someone like that flight attendant (or anyone else on that crew) might actually see their role as a leadership position; someone for whom decision-making is a critical responsibility. When people don’t see themselves as leaders, they shift accountability to someone else or some other entity.
Teach people how to assume responsibility; that they own what they do; that they stand between grave errors and tremendous achievement. Workplace learning and leadership development are more than just valuable. They are critical. I implore you, fill your teams and organizations with leaders at every single level and every single job, and keep them learning all the time.
Perhaps you’re wondering how the airline responded to this nightmare when it was all over (it will never be over for that man and his wife). What did they do, for instance, to try to understand how this all unfolded? What would they do to ensure such a disgusting episode would never happen again? How did they own up to their failure and express remorse to the victims whom they were entrusted to serve? The answer is that the airline shifted blame to a third-party contractor who handles their wheelchair service and offered the passengers a C$2,000 flight voucher.
How’s that for leadership?