Leadership

Southwest's Heroic Crew Shows How a Strong Leader and Preparation Create Good Teamwork

The events of Southwest Flight 1380 demonstrate how even a crew working together for the first time can rise to the most critical of challenges.
Southwest's Heroic Crew Shows How a Strong Leader and Preparation Create Good Teamwork
Image credit: DOMINICK REUTER | AFP | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Author & Executive Coach
6 min read
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We’ve all heard both the tragedy and heroism of Southwest flight 1380 where the engine exploded on a flight between La Guardia and Dallas. As the story unfolded, I was spellbound by the first interview of the entire crew on CBS This Morning.

The accident resulted in the first loss of life on a US domestic flight since 2009. As Captain Tammie Jo Shults said in talking about the death of Jennifer Riordan, "The survival of 148 never eclipses the loss of one." However, 148 did survive, and the talk of the heroism of the crew goes beyond the skill demonstrated by Captain Shults to the first officer and three flight attendants on board, as well.

When one of the hosts pointed out that this was the first time this crew had ever worked together, it prompted the question, “How did you all know what to do and work so well together?” The responses hold the keys to building a great team.

The morning briefing.

Southwest requires a morning briefing where all team members gather in the galley to discuss issues pertinent to the day’s schedule. As you can imagine the weather the crew anticipate facing during the day is a major topic but Captain Shults said, “I tend to go a little deeper because people are deeper than the weather.”

I’m sure you and your team spend a lot of time talking about work related topics and following the protocols required by your business, but what are you doing and what time are you taking to get to know your team and help your team make those personal connections that help to build trust? Because not only are people deeper than the weather, they are deeper than a P&L or production report.

Granting trust.

The crew did not shy away from talking about issues and topics that were important to them. In short order they knew personal details about families and faith. In those conversations they very quickly found out that they had shared interests that immediately helped the team bond. Nora O’Donnell said, “You guys had such shared values. That was so important in a moment of crisis because you trusted one another.”

Related: Do Your Employees Not Trust You? Here's How to Fix It, Fast.

So often in business we wait for people to earn our trust, holding back on really getting to know them or allowing them into our guarded private world. We spend more of our week with the people with whom we work than we do with family members and loved ones. Waiting for people to earn our trust often means that we show up guarded and as a result untrusting. What do you have to lose by being open and granting trust? You never know the crisis or challenges might arise but facing them within a trusting relationship will make a difference.

Knowing your role.

The captain and first officer had clear delineation in their roles in the cockpit. The Captain flew the plane while the first officer managed “switchology” and communicated with the flight attendants.

When something goes wrong on a team, there’s an unfortunate tendency for the leader to step into the details and start to cover everyone else’s position. This causes confusion about accountability and handoffs, frequently resulting in team members feeling disempowered while issues fall between the cracks. The time to ensure there is role clarity and that handoffs are clearly understood is before a crisis hits. That way when it does everyone is playing their position and playing to their strengths.

Communicating.

A question arose how the crew communicated with passengers after the explosion when it was so loud in the cabin. The crew said, “There was wind and debris all throughout the cabin, in the midst of chaos you just have to look at someone, and I think eye contact was the biggest communication.”

Related: How to Communicate Effectively During a Crisis

When businesses or teams encounter challenges, the first casualty is often communication. Leaders pull back either because they don’t have time or don’t know what to say. It’s precisely at times of uncertainty and challenge that your team needs to hear from you. There may be a hundred unknowns, but you have to communicate, and you have to connect. However more scary this flight may have become, your team is along with you for the ride, too, and you owe it to them to communicate.

Taking care of yourself.

From the pilots whose first job is to get on oxygen so that they can continue to function, to the flight attendants who took care of themselves before they flew again, you need to be your priority. The entire crew knew making themselves the top priority meant they would and could do what was needed.

As a leader, how often do you deprioritize taking care of yourself to put either the work or the team ahead of you? I hear leaders say that they would never ask a team member to do something they wouldn’t do themselves. Team members laud good leadership for being the first one in and the last one out and think nothing of disturbing a leader either on weekends or vacation. However, if you are not physically rested and mentally healthy, chances are you’re not your sharpest or brightest self, not making the best decisions or worse you’ll become burned out and suffer ill health. Your team needs you to make yourself a priority just as your family does.

Related: 4 Ways to Get the Rest You Need Without Slacking Off

While work at your office or with your team will rarely, if ever, be like Flight 1380 there is a lot that can be learned from this great team. How do you build a great team that can function under any challenge from the most mundane to the most death defying? In our work we can create high performing teams, a Loyalist Team, and we are often asked how long it takes or how long a leader should wait before expecting their team to become one. If the crew of Flight 1380 teaches us anything, it is that we can get there as quickly as we want. Go build your loyalist team today.

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