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July 21, 2015

The Airplane Incident: Handling Crisis


Two summers ago, I was flying from Denver to Kansas City. It had been an uneventful flight, like one expects and craves. I was reading a good book, and we were nearing home. A faint whisper made its way through the cabin that one of the plane’s two turbo prop engines was out. I have learned this is a fairly uncommon occurrence, having spoken since with people who travel weekly or are commercial pilots. One flight attendant, with 30 years experience in the air, told me she had experienced such a thing only once.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that the circumstance of having 50% of our power to stay aloft concerned some people, and before long the faint whisper grew into audible questions and voiced concerns. But the whole event unfolded almost entirely without incident, and I even went back to reading my book. What the crew did put nearly everyone in the cabin at ease. The whole episode took place in about 15 minutes and served as a crash course (pun intended) in crisis management. I have used this episode often as a leadership paradigm. It has proven a helpful guide as the congregation I serve joined ECO and is enduring a legal battle challenging the move.

1) Tell the Truth.

Jesus promised, “The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Our most important commodity as leaders is a willingness to tell the truth regardless of the situation.

The first move the crew was to tell the passengers exactly what was going on. The pilot came on the radio calmly gave us just the right of amount information—thorough without being too detailed: “You may have noticed that our starboard engine, on the right side of the plane, has stopped functioning. We have turned it off because of a pressure light that came on.”

I remember that phrase in particular because while the pilot used technical terminology to describe the problem (starboard engine), he clarified what that meant for anyone who might not have known. This did two things. First, his use of the technical term communicated professionalism and expertise. This guy is a pro, I thought. His clarification of the term for the layperson told me that he was sensitive to those who didn’t know. That was fine, but what I really wanted was an expert to land the plane. I could not care less about his sensitivity. What good would a sensitive pilot be if we went down in flames? More importantly, his clarification told me that he was in control. He was so in control that he had time to monitor his speech. He was not panicked. His lack of panic and willingness to share exactly what was happening laid the foundation for a sense of calm in the cabin.

2) Share the Plan.

The next move the pilot made was to tell the passengers precisely what he and the crew were going to do. He explained that because the plane was already so close to our final destination we were going to fly all the way to Kansas City. He told us that the crew would be preparing us and demonstrating how to get in position for a crash landing. He told us exactly how far away we were from Kansas City and how long it would take for us to get there — about 15 minutes. The pilot said the FAA had cleared the air traffic and we would be landing on the most isolated runway. He further told us what to expect as we landed: that along the runway we would see emergency vehicles lined up and ready for our landing.

Why was this important? Speaking for myself, I assumed there was a plan. Plans are important. We clearly worship a God who plans. Common sense tells us we should plan ahead in case a crisis happens. A multi-billion dollar airline surely had a plan for this kind of thing. There was not necessarily greater peace for me because there was a plan but knowing what the plan was did two things. First, gave me a sense of buy-in, increasing my peace because I felt like I was part of the action. It did not matter so much to me what the plan was. I really had no basis to determine what a good plan was and what was not. I could not tell you if 15 minutes from Kansas City was a good time or not. I never thought about clearing the air traffic. Knowing the plan was enough: there were no secrets. Secondly, being informed minimized surprises. Admittedly, seeing the runway lined with ambulances and fire trucks, with their red lights turning in the blackness, would have been scary had I not already known they were going to be there. But knowing their presence was all a part of the plan, I did not panic upon seeing them and neither did nearly anyone else—but we’ll get to her in a minute.

3) Reassure by remembering.

The pilot made two points about how they were prepared for this very situation. He first said, “This plane has been designed, if necessary, to fly on one engine.” This was, of course, reassuring in some measure. Knowing that it was physically possible for the plane to carry us home safely in its present condition was important. The pilot also said that they trained for this event on a simulator every six months. Oddly enough this was more comforting than the pilot offering, “I have successfully landed a plane with one engine before.” If this had been a routine occurrence, it would have undermined my confidence in the crew and airline’s competency and made me question why they don’t just fix this problem. Instead, knowing that this was an extremely rare event, yet anticipated enough to be practiced every six months on a simulator, further increased my confidence in the airline and crew causing me to think, “These guys are really prepared.”

Unfortunately, there is no video game simulator for real life. In the church, we can look to and rely upon God’s faithfulness in the past to help us. Jesus’ consistency of character is our best guide here. Remembering and recalling our God’s help ‘in ages past’ is a faithful way to reassure our present. Psalm 22 is an example of this. After complaining that he had been forsaken by God and his cries gone unanswered, David proclaimed: “In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued.”(Psalm 22:4-5) We can always call upon God’s past faithfulness to help us face an uncertain future.

4) Don’t Over-Promise.

Interestingly enough, no crew-member ever gave any assurance of results. What all of us wanted to hear was Seinfeld’s George Costanza response to the question of if he has cancer: “Get out of here!” The question, “Will we crash?” was the one question we wanted answered. At no point did anyone make promise of a trouble free landing. No one on the crew told us, “Crash? No way. Never happen.” Ultimately, the pilot could not control whether or not we were going to crash. He could only control what he could do. He could influence the plane, of course. But ultimately whether or not a plane lands safely, especially one that is mechanically impaired, is subject to a great many factors beyond any human control—gusts of wind, lightning, further mechanical failure, bad fuel, a stray goose flying into the working turboprop. Those factors are all in God’s hands.

Again, there is biblical precedent for this practice. Jesus’ brother James commanded, “Above all else, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or any other oath but let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’” (James 5:12) The thrust of this teaching is that we ultimately are subject to the will of God and we control precious little. We can say what we plan to do, we can say what we hope will happen, but we should not promise things that are beyond our control. Under-promising rarely gets us in trouble, over-promising will often do that very thing. We cannot guarantee results. We are not even guaranteed our next breath. We cannot even really promise what we will do. We can only say what we intend to do. To paraphrase Top Gun, “Don’t let your ego write checks your body can’t cash.”

5. Communicate Individually.

As the plane winged toward Kansas City, the passengers strapped themselves into their seats and prepared to assume crash positions, I was struck that the crew walked up and down the aisle answering questions. My thoughts immediately turned to their safety but there was a real purpose behind this action, not everyone felt as calmed and comforted as I did. You might say that as a pastor I have an eternal perspective and I knew exactly where I was headed should the landing be one from which we could not walk away. When the pilot was done briefing us on the situation and went back to flying the plane full-time, I went back to reading my book. However, not everyone was so assured. The gentleman sitting in the seat next to me broke FAA rules texting to someone, “I love you.” The flight attendants did the important work of answering questions and easing concerns of those who were not so calm. The number here was relatively few but it only takes a handful of people in a cigar tube flying at 530 miles per hour to cause a real problem! The flight attendants ability and willingness to suffer some moderate risk paid off in heading off potential problem people.

Surely this was part of Jesus’ intent in encouraging his disciples to be willing to leave the ninety-nine in order to seek out the one sheep gone astray. This is not purely altruistic or merely concerned with the health of the one. The entire flock is at risk from the one. One wayward sheep caught up in his or her own trauma can do a lot of harm to the ninety-nine. Having a spokesperson with the message described above is important. Of equal importance is the follow-up, allowing other leaders, carrying the same message to communicate individually, one to one, with people with further concerns and questions—both legitimate and illegitimate. Even illegitimate questions unanswered gain legitimacy over time.

6. Expect Defections.

The crew on the flight handled the crisis well. People were nervous about our situation but everyone remained calm, albeit with a few questions. The crisis was managed well. There was, however, one noteworthy exception. A woman sitting the row directly behind me lost it. She absolutely could not contain herself. She began to loudly criticize the pilot and the airline, calling into question their competency. She began weeping and sobbing uncontrollably. Again, the attendants tried to comfort and meet her needs. One attendant even held her hand. It did not work. There was literally nothing that could be done—short of a tranquilizer dart.

More telling, she also cried out for the entire plane to hear, “I’ve never been married! I want children! Why didn’t I marry Matt! I know he loved me. I was so mean to him.” She had been drinking as well and that no doubt played a role in her meltdown. Two things are noteworthy here. First, her hysteria had very little to do with the actual situation, although the plane’s emergency landing was the fuse. In addition to her carry-on, she brought a lot of emotional baggage onto that flight. In our crises at church or home or work, wherever, we should anticipate that some people will react poorly no matter how well we manage things. Their behavior, criticism, or meltdown may have in actuality very little to do with the circumstances of the crisis. It may very well have everything to do with the circumstances of their life. We are sinners. We are prone to shirk responsibility and blame others for our faults. This is important to keep in mind as we try to keep our confidence during a crisis.

Secondly, her meltdown actually had a galvanizing effect on the people around us. Her hysteria functioned a little like a mirror causing others to examine themselves and see the importance of remaining calm. Others tried to comfort her as well. Although discomforting and even painful, in God’s economy, He redeems even meltdowns. Hysterical critics can serve a jiu-jitsu like purpose, demonstrating to fence sitters the ridiculousness of a counter position. This isn’t exactly what Lenin meant by the term ‘useful idiots,’ but the phraseology still applies. I also noticed that no one around us criticized the woman publicly or shouted unhelpfully ‘calm down’ or ‘shut-up.’ People met her hysteria with tolerance and grace. This served not to inflame tensions or generate further hysteria or perhaps even generate sympathy for her criticisms.

Any Landing You can Walk Away From…

Because you are reading something I wrote, you can assume the plane made it to our destination safely. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many organizations, especially many churches that endure crisis. Tellingly, it is not the crisis itself but the emotional impact upon the organization that does the greatest damage. Leading the people according to these six simple lessons will help bring about happy landing.

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