What’s Your Leadership Model: Elephant or Ostrich?

elephant and ostrich

If leadership was easy, more people would be great leaders.  Leading is smooth sailing when things are going smoothly.   The real question is: How do you fare under pressure?

I was flying from Hartford to Charlotte last week, on the first leg of a multi-day business trip. The flight was proceeding smoothly.

As our A320 approaches the runway to land, we’re just about put wheels down on the tarmac when the pilot quickly accelerates and takes off again in a very steep ascent.

This sudden climb felt like a roller coaster.  I could hear comments all around:

  • Oh, my god!
  • Are we OK?!
  • What’s going on?
  • Why don’t they tell us anything?

We get nothing from the cockpit.  Radio silence.

I get it.  The pilots are busy.  They have a job to do, which is safely land the plane.

We’re now aloft for another 15 minutes, making a giant circle over the greater Charlotte area.   Finally, we make another pass at the runway and come in for a smooth landing.

A burst of applause ripples through the main cabin.  Relief.

Still radio silence.

The seat belt bell dings, and we stand up to deplane.  We’ve heard nothing from the cockpit.  The man in front of me asks the flight attendant:  What happened up there? Why’d we go back up?

Her response?  Your guess is as good as mine.  We don’t know anything.  They haven’t told us anything.  

In the absence of any information, the mood around me turned sour.  We deplaned in an anxious shroud of mystery.

Leaders lead people:  people who want to make meaning of events, and make sense of the world.

Stuff happens:  it’s how you deal with the stuff that sets you apart.

That entire flight knew that touchdown did not go according to plan.  It was the elephant in the room.  The flight leaders had the chance to name it, and call it out.  Even if they couldn’t share all the details with us, they could at least acknowledge the reality of our experience.  Instead, the pilots chose to “ignore” the whole incident.  The way an ostrich would put their head in the sand.

Whether your the leader of a plane, or the leader of a team, it takes courage to name the elephant in the room.   It means letting go of the all-perfect persona  that’s got it all figured out.  But when you name it, then you can deal with it.  And the paradox is that when you’re genuine and straightforward (warts and all) people will trust you more because of it.

All that “ostrich-style” leadership does is postpone the inevitable.  It tries to put a tiny band-aid on the symptom of a deeper malady.

What examples of elephant and ostrich leadership have you seen?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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