Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

In the pantheon of great organizations, we all know of Southwest. Social media, thousands of news articles, even Harvard business case studies all point out what we already know—Southwest is to the airline industry as Apple is to tech firms. Southwest stands proud in an industry known for its competitive brutality around costs, fees, and labor relations. About a month ago, we saw firsthand what makes Southwest superior.

It was a 65 minute flight from Providence, Rhode Island to Baltimore. The flight got off to a bumpy start, and the beverage service—always hurried due to the shortened time window—was even more behind than normal. Two rows to our front was a Southwest pilot who was deadheading. Deadheading refers to pilots or crew who are being repositioned as part of their assigned trip. Usually, they do nothing but ride as if they were a normal passenger…not in this case.

Seeing that the flight attendants were behind and under distress in the effort to provide 150 drinks and snacks with about 30 minutes to go in the flight, the pilot acted. He got up. He grabbed the peanuts and pretzels, and the pilot jumped in on that duty. He helped the flight attendants deliver drinks and even picked up a bag to collect trash. For most of the flight, he traded in his pilot wings for the duties of a flight attendant. What possibly could we learn here? Quite a bit, we believe.

Let’s go ahead and put what many would consider a ‘trivial act’ under the microscope to see if we can detect any leadership lessons here. First, as we focus the microscope, we see situational awareness. The pilot was tuned in to what was going on. As a leader or teammate, you can’t ever begin to help if you aren’t dialed into what’s going on. This pilot saw an opportunity, but seeing an opportunity is far removed from acting on it. What we also see here is a leader that runs to the ball. He didn’t need to be asked. He saw an opportunity and, without direction, jumped into action. Third, most see themselves in static roles. For instance, this pilot, like many, could’ve said, “I’m just an individual contributor; it’s not my job to help with that task. Besides, I’m along for the ride, and I surely don’t get paid for handing out peanuts.” This seasoned pilot didn’t see himself as a prima donna. Rather, he saw himself as part of the greater team. Moreover, he displayed the valuable asset of empathy—he saw another teammate in distress, in need of support, and acted decisively.

To be sure, this lesson isn’t as simplistic as it may sound. Of course, the interesting challenge here—especially as it relates to high-hazard/high risk organizations—is to discern when it is appropriate to step out of role to help another. Indeed, in high risk/high hazard organizations it is dangerous, if not downright deadly, to step out of role. When you aren’t in an oversight role, however, and discretionary effort could help a subordinate or a peer, what could possibly hold you back? The Southwest pilot, in this case, knew the answer—nothing. He knew that stepping out of role from a deadheading pilot to that of a flight attendant was not putting the safety of the flying public in jeopardy. He knew he could help without sacrificing the mission.

What truly unlocked the value of this event, to us, was a deeper understanding of how crews are formed and operate in the airline industry. Unlike a crew in a nuclear control room, airline crews hardly, if ever, work the same schedule. In other words, the team is always different as players are rotating in and out. Unbelievably, in this case, he didn’t know the names of the flight attendants that he was helping. He did it, again, simply because he saw a glaring need and thought he could help. The flight attendants and were beaming with appreciation. He made their hard job just a bit easier—and he didn’t have to.

At ELP, we can help you take a step closer to this type of team-first orientation. If you want to go wheels up and see your teamwork rise in elevation, you don’t need to fly Southwest. Instead, just drop Robin a line at to learn more.