May 27, 2011

Servant Leadership

Yesterday I was on the final leg of what had become a 20-hour journey home from Toronto. I was worn out from working hard with a new client and exhausted from too much travel. The airports were a mess from the daily pounding of severe storms and my flight home was cancelled at the last minute the day before. I missed my son’s middle school graduation so I wasn’t exactly pleased. Although having just watched video footage and interviews from Joplin, Missouri, my situation didn’t seem so bad at all.

I was lined up to board for this final flight home. We were, of course, weather delayed. The Southwest ground crew was scrambling to pull off an even faster than usual turn-around of the plane that had just arrived. There were people everywhere. Standby passengers. Old folks. Lots of wheelchairs. Crying babies. Tired businessmen.

And then I witnessed an act of servant leadership that changed my day and my attitude. A disabled young man from the arriving flight was wheeled up the jetway and through the door. He was missing some limbs and looked like he had probably suffered burns. But that’s not what changed my attitude. It was the fact that his wheelchair was being pushed by THE CAPTAIN.

That’s right. The highest ranking and probably highest paid guy in the area was pushing a passenger in a wheelchair. You know, the job usually done by a minimum wage porter. The guy sporting four bars on his epaulets who just flew 135 people through treacherous conditions is now pushing a wheelchair. But wait. It gets better. The same captain then pushes one of the pre-boarding outbound passenger wheelchairs down the jetway to the plane.

Honestly, I was stunned. Not super-stunned because it was Southwest and “wheels up” is a theme that drives the culture and behavior of their amazing associates. And that’s one of the reasons I go out of my way to fly them whenever possible. But seeing that captain grab the second passenger’s chair and head back down the jetway made a huge impact on me.

Think about the message the captain sent. The message to the passengers he humbly served. The message to his co-workers who are lower on the food chain than he is. The message to all the other customers watching him do everything he could to help get us home as fast as possible!

So, to all of us I ask:  How are we doing in the servant-leader category? I am talking to you important person. Dad. Husband. CEO. VP Sales. Manager. Big time sales guy/gal. Sales consultant. How’s it going? What messages are we sending to the people we lead?

I was inspired, convicted and challenged by the servant leadership demonstrated by this Southwest Airlines captain. I finally made it home and my attitude was a lot better when I got here because of him.