I am not particularly proud to tell this story today, but I think that there is value in it. We (I) have come a long way in the last few decades. If you’ve made and served anyone tea lately, I personally believe you understand an essence vitally important to leadership. If you haven’t made and served anyone tea lately, and you consider yourself a leader in any capacity, then this thought is for you. Yes, I know many of us are isolated right now, but when you were in your work environment (or even at home), when was the last time you made and served someone tea?
If you take a moment to think about doing so – imagining yourself in your environment at home or at work – what does it feel like to offer to make tea for someone else? Perhaps some of you have already developed this superpower. Perhaps some of you are wondering what on earth I’m on about. Well, for me, it took a long time to learn the joy of serving some else tea, and now I realise there are essential leadership skills buried in that seemingly simple thing.
You see, I grew up as a young teen forging myself a space in the aviation community. Flying aircraft was all I ever wanted to do. It was part genetics and part passion. I come from a flying family where my Father flew 30,000-odd flying hours over the course of his career, and where my Mum and my half-sister were air hostesses on Viscounts in a time when individual GnTs were served on trays, and you cleared the cigarette smoke from the cabin by pulling the plug in the galley sink. My older cousins learned to fly whilst I watched in awe, still too young to participate myself. My younger brother would go on to fly fast jets for the RAF. Flying was something that surrounded me.
25 years ago, finding my space in aviation was a double-edged challenge. Then, we still lived in a world where you played down everything that was feminine and played up everything that demonstrated the flying skills that had gained you your qualifications. Added to this, in my community I was John Heap’s daughter. That held some weight and some expectation. They were big shoes.
During my second interview for a cargo flying job, I was told, “The boys don’t think you can do the job.”. My cheeky early-20s response was “Give me the job and I’ll show you I can do it better than the boys.”. Proving I deserved the space I’d earned was part of my profession for many years. They were awesome flying years, and I flew with incredible crew and instructors who all spoke into my growth as a pilot and as a person. Once people understood that you could do your job, it was a very tight knit family to be part of. Each of us working on an unspoken and combined undertaking to do our job to the best of our abilities, respecting each other’s capabilities.
I remember finishing a cargo flight one day and having a few drinks with the other crew members I’d flown with. I’d walked over to one of those crew members to enquire about the general schedule over the next few days and was introduced to the gentleman he was talking to. As my friend went off to fetch the schedule (it wasn’t on our phones in those days), his friend started up a conversation by asking me what I did. I replied that I flew airplanes. His face lit up as he replied “Ah! Cabin crew!”. I responded “No, flight crew”. He looked at me quizzically for a few seconds and then asked, “Okay, what do you really do?”. “I’m a secretary.” I replied, as we eased into more comfortable conversation.
The point is that I had to fight to be regarded as deserving of the skills and position I had earned, and I was immensely proud to be a part of it. I don’t believe it’s a female pilot thing – although it may have been (or felt) more obvious in that role. I believe it’s a human thing. We strive hard for the things that are important to us. We put blood, sweat and tears into the things that we’re passionate about. We spend years building ourselves professionally, and we rise. Whether you’re in aviation, or any other industry, if you’ve done this for any length of time, you’ll know what I’m talking about. There is a degree of personal pride to achieving any forward moving, elevated growth from where you started off as when you were first introduced to real life and adulting.
Whatever your arena, rising through those layers of growth to earn the respect of your peers and the personal skills to lead is no short course. There will always be disbelievers. There will always be hurdles to you achieving what you’re capable of, and overcoming these opinions and hurdles will strengthen your resolve, your resilience and your pride in what you do.
When I first stopped flying, it was supposed to be a temporary thing. It wasn’t how I’d planned it; it was a combination of life circumstance that had come together. I’d allocated myself a 3-month buffer during which I intended to find my next flying opportunity. When, toward the end of the second month that wasn’t looking immediately likely, I approached a friend of mine I saw in the gym car park and asked whether she knew of any jobs going. I’d do anything, as long as it meant I earned a salary by the end of next month. She was interviewing for a temp replacement for her PA who was going on maternity leave and was willing to slot me into those interviews.
I was privileged enough to be offered the roll, and the next chapter of my journey began. One of the first responsibilities I needed to fulfil was making tea for clients when they arrived. The “flight crew, not cabin crew” part of me was in serious pain. The very thing that I’d become skilled at handing off when it was attached to other people’s opinions was staring me right in the face. What had been a journey of resilience and personal accomplishment for so many years had become an ego trap. I flailed around in my own internal pool of self-indignance for a good while, struggling with a problem that was going to sound wholly ridiculous if I voiced it to anyone. I was being asked to make tea and it was killing me.
Now, almost a decade later, I can look back on that seemingly simple experience and know that it was a monumental turning point for me. Now I understand that there is an essence to making tea that is vital to leadership, and that’s the ability not to rank yourself more important than the people you may be serving, regardless of what it is you’ve had to sweat through to get there. Yes, we’ve all walked different paths to reach where we are, but none of those paths make us greater than anyone else. We may have earned different responsibilities. Different ranks. Different paygrades. But none of us is more human than another, none less deserving of the recognition you give someone when you make them tea.
Serving the people you work with, and especially the people you lead, requires humility. Humility is not something we tend to look at as a strong skill, and yet, when we look at the most genuinely successful leaders in the world, they are strong, and they are humble. They place others before themselves. They recognise that they are part of a greater team and that leadership cannot come without people to lead. Serving requires a very different set of leadership skills – it is quieter, it is open, it is as mentioned, humble. And it is powerful. There is an essence to it that I’m unable to put into words, and there is a joy to it as well. Serving tea became a gift I could give. It became something I relished doing. And there is something it added to my personal development that has helped me greatly in my own business and with the teams and leadership I now work with.
Serving tea is a superpower. When was the last time you gave someone that gift?
by Christen Killick
September 21st, 2020