Laughter & Leadership

“Before take-off, a professional pilot is keen, anxious, but lest someone read his true feelings, he is elaborately casual.”  This simple line from the forward of Ernest K. Gann’s book “Island in the Sky” describes a familiar demeanour not only of pilots, but of leadership.  It describes a balancing act between awareness of self and awareness of others.  An eager and discerning eye taking in all the surrounding information.  Tempered responses that belie the whirring of the wheels of internal processing.  Leadership that inspires calm, regardless of what may require handling in any given moment.  This is the space that commercial pilots like to dwell in; that any leadership prefers to dwell in.
Have you looked around you lately?  Have you taken the measure of your own internal whirring versus what you’re portraying externally?  Have you noticed the demeanour of others, especially when you add a little pressure?
In my current travels, I’ve sat at the same restaurant twice over the past few days, watching the managers and staff respond to the demands of their customers.  Take what is normally a professional flurry of efficiency, add a dash of COVID curfew to the evening service, and throw in a side order of load shedding (power outage), and the atmosphere starts to thicken up a little.  I commented to one of the managers who checked on my table that it looked like they were doing a hell of a job with very full hands.  Her response was “we are dealing with a lot of angry people these days.”
I myself had a mini meltdown trying to accomplish the most basic of tasks to get my son ready for the moving target that is the beginning of the school term, when the culmination of days of PCR tests, travel restrictions and various other pressures overflowed because of a squirt of hand sanitizer.  That hand sanitizer.  The one that won’t sink in or evaporate.  The one that renders you useless until you find something to wipe your hands with.  I did not feel calm inside.  I did not look composed on the outside.  I may rightly have been considered pathetic and emotionally unstable were I not surrounded by people teetering often on the same brink.
I sit here this morning laughing at myself and thinking “where is your training?”.  Where is that elaborately casual exterior within which I am so at home?  Where is that keen and enthusiastic eye that takes in everything, the clear brain that processes and orders what I see, and the measured and reassuring responses of a professional pilot?  I laugh like I laughed yesterday with the restaurant manager.  We laughed and shook our heads at the humanness that surrounded us.  The angry people.  The people overcome by the stresses and pressures of their current daily lives.  The people who, like the rest of us, are not feeling as in control as they’d like to be feeling.
And there is the crux of the problem.  Each one of us has a basic human need for a degree of certainty.  To know something for sure.  To have a degree of control over our environment, our decisions, our own self and the outcomes that affect us.  This need for certainty is a spectrum – some of us need a little, and some of us need more – but we all need some.  It is one of our most fundamental human needs and we spend a lot of time trying to balance it.
Usually, I’d use the example of a three-year-old child to remind us what it looks like when a human being feels out of control in one area and tries to balance that need by taking control in other areas.  Toddlers are notoriously immovable once they decide to take control.  It can be loud.  It can be messy.  There is little reasoning with them.  However, at present, we’re surrounded by a world full of adults who are feeling and responding to the same need.
An ongoing degree of change with no foreseeable end in sight has us on our feet on a daily basis.  The demand to respond to that constant change makes is difficult, if not impossible, to predict or plan too far ahead.  This is the world that professional pilots are trained to operate in, trained to be ready for.  A world where we take nothing for granted and make no assumptions.  Where we take in and assess every piece of information and rework it a thousand ways so that we’re prepared for any outcome.
Yet, even professional pilots do that for a defined duty period, followed by a mandatory and legal requirement to rest.  To replenish.  To recharge so that they are ready to fly again on that same sharp level of awareness.
So, what do we do when the pressure is high and when each day adds new dynamics?  What do we do when we need to lead ourselves, and when others look to us for leadership and direction?  What do we do when the world is full of pressurized, out-of-control angry people and we have moments of feeling similar ourselves?
We laugh.
We laugh at ourselves and with each other.  We laugh and shake our heads in acknowledgement of the curved balls that just keep coming.  We laugh at our incredible ability to handle so much – an ability that occasionally falls off a fairly sharp cliff with the smallest squirt of the wrong hand sanitizer.  If we can compare stress and wind each other up further in our negativity, we can do the opposite and laugh together with a little effort.
To date, laughing at myself and laughing with others is the best way I know how to depressurize and to regain a calm exterior.  Who would have thought that laughter would become a leadership skill with which to navigate a rather savage world of constant change?  I’m sure there are other leadership skills to be shared here, and I’d love to hear your recommendations!  How have you learned to depressurize and to navigate these times of constant change?  What would you recommend?

by Christen Killick

January 18th, 2021

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