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Leadership Lessons: Piloting in Turbulent Times
By Eileen McDargh

The pace of change impacting the insurance industry has never been greater. From consolidations, mergers, and acquisitions to re-engineering profit centers, creating new product lines and calming a variety of stakeholders, managers are faced with what often appears to be turbulent situations. And with turbulence comes the fact that colleagues and staff experience anxiety. Performance levels drop. Morale suffers. And all are the off-shoot of fear.

The following vignette offers practical lessons for handling the fear and resultant anxiety that come with unexpected and unwanted change. While this true-life situation occurred in the clouds, the concepts are very much grounded in reality. Its lessons can be carried into the office, the field, or the home.


Sunny skies, light winds, and gentle surf started yet another lovely Spring day in Southern California. Full of optimism, I boarded a flight bound for New Orleans by way of Denver and a major speaking engagement.

I never made it.

Snow intervened in Denver, delaying our 747 while nozzles spewed chemicals onto the wings. The captain explained the procedure as he walked back into the cabin to visually inspect the coating. Once airborne, he told us we’d hear the landing gear go down for a second time as they checked the mechanics. Finally off to New Orleans on Flight #1180.


A freak series of severe thunderstorms blew in from Texas, causing considerable jolting and bucking. The captain’s voice, calm and deliberate, explained each deviation as he attempted to discover a better routing. We couldn’t even get close. “I’m an old captain, not a bold captain”, he explained when he announced we’d be diverting to Birmingham, Alabama. The passengers literally applauded his honesty and his concern for our safety while we all silently and not-so-silently moaned our fate.

The only trouble with the landing was that, for all intent and purpose, the airport was closed. No jetway, no baggage handlers, merely the last remnants of a night staff. The captain’s voice informed us he’d be coming through the jet, out the back stairs, and expected us to wait until his return at which time he’d tell us the next steps in our journey. Birmingham was not this carrier’s hub.

One hundred-fifty people, many with small children, listened patiently when he returned and explained the exiting procedure from the aircraft, where we’d lodge, and when we’d meet and “have another go at it” in the morning. Not one whimper or angry outburst arose. And true to his word, we all assembled after little sleep, no food, and for many, no change of clothes. We had now bonded in the experience and called out to one another, laughing and sometimes gasping as the still rocky air finally parted enough to bring us into New Orleans.

I lost significant income on that flight but I gained a strong metaphor for leadership principles in times of crisis and change. What the captain and crew engendered, by their behavior, was confidence and trust.

The word ‘trust” serves as an acronym for understanding exactly what happened on this trip and what all leaders must do in today’s turbulent business environment.

T: Tell the truth and reveal feelings. Information abounded on Flight #1180. People deserve and need plenty of information about what’s happening, why it’s happening, and what are the next steps-- even if those next steps are to stop, take stock, and develop the next plan of attack. And the information has to be immediate. Waiting while the rumor mill churns out various versions of “the truth” creates anxiety, second-guessing, and sometimes panic. None of these are conducive for productivity or morale. Respond quickly, honestly to every rumor that surfaces. Create a “heat sheet” (e-mail and hard copy) that can serve as a one-page update on rumors.

Notice that the captain also admitted that he was “old not bold”. Consider this the more truthful equivalent of the oft-mocked phrase “I feel your pain”. The captain didn’t like this hair-raising flight any more than we did—and he acted upon that feeling after trying many measures. Leaders are not invincible. Employees can identify with this statement and also become reassured that the leader is not going to do anything foolhardy to jeopardize the organization and its people. Sure, he knew a number of us would “take a hit”, but my meeting was a small sacrifice for the overall welfare of the group. R: Respond consistently. Once the captain and crew established a reporting method, they continued with the updates. Voices never changed. A pattern of zigzagging to avoid storms was followed. Is it not true that businesses often need to consistently be inconsistent in seeking improvements, finding new markets, responding to the marketplace? Just make sure you communicate the why behind every zig and zag. Otherwise, employees will wonder who is running the company.

U: Understand your role. Be competent. Be visible. With voice as well as physical presence, the captain and crew were “out and about”. In times of change and turbulence, seeing and hearing the leader is important. By walking through the cabin and putting a hand on different people’s shoulders, he reassured passengers. The captain also invited people to stay with him and talk about the flight if anyone was concerned. In times of change and crisis, it is vital that leaders be seen and available for questions and feedback. Too often, the leader meets only with senior people or disappears behind closed doors. Get out and about.

S: See people as trustworthy. Share the experience. The captain stated what he would do and that he expected us to follow his instructions. He basically said, “I trust you to do what is right for yourselves and each other.” If a leader wants to be trusted, that presumption must also be present.

The captain also didn’t spend the night in the Presidential Suite of a hotel. He took whatever was available—just like the rest of us. Far too often, leaders proclaim austerity measures and then exempt themselves. One client told of attending a meeting where a 10% reduction in force was announced by the company attorney because the president and his senior officers were in Augusta, attending the Masters Gold Tournament! To preserve confidence and trust, pain should be felt first and hardest at the top. The employee and customer loyalty this engenders will be invaluable when the turbulence subsides.

T: Take action. Take time to laugh. On Flight #1180, passengers were kept appraised of each action step and the results of that step, both positive and negative. Whether in the board room, the marketing department, or the cockpit, an action followed by course correction is a wise mode for handling any change or crisis.

Lastly, the captain and the crew managed to find humor in the situation. “Laughter,” as Victor Borge said,” is the shortest distance between people.” Laughing over what cannot be controlled creates that element of bonding which is fundamental in maintaining trust. Laughter puts situations in perspective. It regains focus. It is also the canary in the mine of commerce. Gloom becomes toxic. One organization started a “frisbee memo day”. Another began holding impromptu ice cream parties. Just because business is “serious” doesn’t mean joy must be absent.

Test your trust quotient by putting asking what would people say about your behaviors during turbulent times. Would there be mutiny and fleeing the ship? Or would people stick with you to the next destination in the organization’s journey? Let’s trust they would.

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Eileen McDargh is founder of McDargh Communications, a consulting and training company specializing in inner and interpersonal skill development for the purpose of improving the life of a business and the business of life. Visit Eileen at or

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