February 5, 2023 Carole Levy

Master Class in Leadership while on a plane in Stormy Weather

On January 4th, a “bomb cyclone storm” was announced on the news. It was predicted to break in the greater Bay Area within the next several hours. I was safe at home, but my husband, Jean-Pierre, was in Vancouver and supposed to be on a flight back home that same night at 7:20pm

I kept receiving alarming warnings about the weather.  Extreme natural conditions in California usually get on my nerves, but the uncertainty about the travel situation, and JP’s one-hour drive from the airport to home under furious winds and pouring rain, made me over-the-top anxious. 

I nagged him to change his flight and come back earlier. He conceded to take a flight at 7pm, and I conceded to accept the 20 minutes. 

Ironically, the flight turned out being delayed by two and half hours due to the severe weather conditions in San Francisco. But at least the flight wasn’t cancelled, and that reassured me. I was more worried about the driving than the flying anyway.

Jean-Pierre has a high tolerance for risky adventures. There aren’t a lot of things that make him anxious, except flight turbulence because of the extreme loss of control. Another, though more minor loss of control for Jean-Pierre, is being the passenger in a car. He’s a good match for me. I dislike driving and love daydreaming in the co-pilot seat – one of the few places where I don’t care to “control” my environment.

At 9pm, JP boarded the plane and texted me that the pilot had warned them: it would be a very bumpy flight. 

What could have been a passive and painful experience of simply enduring a horrible flight, ended up offering Jean-Pierre a master class in leadership in two lessons while in the air:

1- Clear, and calm communication helps reduce uncertainty and stress

 The pilot, the person who had the most information and was certainly the most in control of the situation, took the time to transparently and frequently communicate. It wasn’t just the usual “be seated and attach your belt.” He shared pertinent information.  He let passengers know when to expect turbulences. He was calm and soberly descriptive. No jokes to distract, no drama to alarm. Jean-Pierre experienced the pilot’s communication as an act of care and empathy which in return allowed Jean-Pierre to surrender to the situation as well as trust and manage his stress. 

2- Letting go of what we can’t control generates agency

On the solid ground of our normal life, we are used to exercising control over many things in order to maintain our equilibrium. But in an airplane, there is not much we can control except ourselves. All Jean-Pierre could do was to turn deeply inward and control his breathing. Two feet on the ground, with his back straight, he sat down, eyes closed, head down, and focused on breathing in and breathing out while listening to the pilot.  As Jean-Pierre said, it was a groundlessness experience and the longest meditation of his life! In mobilizing his mental resources to attend to his breathing, he gained back a sense of agency and calmed down. 

Meanwhile, for two and half hours, I binge-watched Ted Lasso. I was in the comfort of my home and didn’t have an incentive to mobilize my inner resources to control my fears. I just covered them up, distracting myself with a show for babies. That’s often what we do when we are in our comfort zone. 

And it’s okay. I’m learning to give myself breaks on the path of enlightenment and forgive my moments of indulging in frivolity. 

To my surprise, once I turned off the TV, I too had an experience of surrendering to trust. Indeed, I was too tired to be anxious and fell asleep thinking that Jean-Pierre would be just fine. And he was. He made it safely home at 2am.

On the journey of exercising leadership and agency in stormy weather, we each have our own methodology for releasing control, and feeling better.


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