A failure in courage and a smack right in the face “thank you world”

This is a 2-part story about learning coming from unexpected places, and my failure in courage to expand another 2% outside my comfort zone in conversations with strangers. This leads serendipitously into multiple lessons in performance and how we show up in the world. 

Background: I’ve been on a mission for a long time to stretch myself to “have conversations with strangers” focusing on small interactions – in elevators, waiting for a coffee, waiting in line, I even fixed a guy’s bike in the elevator the other day. I had been at it all week at the conference I spoke at in Denver June 7th, I courageously met so many great people in small interactions. I’m introverted so this “mini conversations with strangers” mission had challenged me. However, without knowing it, this challenge had faded into my comfort zone and I hadn’t stretched into the next. 

Part 1…

Denver to Calgary Flight: 

Let’s begin with Friday June 9th 2022 as my flight from Denver landed in Calgary. As the plane was coasting to the gate, I turned to my left and started a conversation with the guy seated next to me. 

In our 10 minute conversation I learned that this guy was headed to Prince George BC, where he works as a pilot, flying small planes. He was coming from Texas where he’d been for flight simulator training and we had just completed segment 2 of his 4-flight journey home. As I told him I was going on to Saskatoon, he said that he had previously lived in PA (Prince Albert). I said “If you were living in PA, it’s typically one of two things – either working with the Federal Penitentiary, or with Forestry / Pulp & Paper” – he was flying small planes for the latter. Cool. He had a long journey home yet, not arriving in Prince George until 10pm, he’d been up since 3am. We were both tired. He was wearing a bracelet that said Dave Hare 2011, I froze that in my memory for later as I felt I should know that name, that story. I wasn’t about to ask right there and then. This important detail comes back later in the story – let’s park it for now. 

Just as we’re really getting into conversation, it was suddenly our turn to deplane. I grabbed my stuff and hurried down the aisle. 

My rushing through the Calgary airport: 

About 10 minutes later, after I was through customs in Calgary, I realized that I was an idiot. My own system, my discomfort had sabotaged me. I was ignoring the signals for what I knew I should do (stop, turn around, wait, re-engage), it was like watching myself in a movie in fast forward. You want to be doing one thing but you are knowingly watching yourself do something else. WTH. 

I hadn’t looked back, I hadn’t waited even 3 seconds to talk to this guy, I was in a hurry. For what? Hurried for no reason at all – I had a 6 hour layover in Calgary, and had cleared customs in record time! But I didn’t stop, I didn’t even slow down. I was hurrying away from my discomfort of re-engaging, although continuing the conversation was exactly what I knew in my brain I should do. 

Shoulda, coulda, woulda – too late. I know well that this hurriedness IS my comfort zone, my own autopilot protection from discomfort. In this moment it didn’t serve me. Prince George Pilot conversation opportunity lost. This ticked me off and I’m writing about it now in hope I learn through the act of writing this, and that it helps someone else. 

A total miss.

For those of you who know me, you know my obsession is accelerating people performance, helping people be their best, convert learning to real skill acquisition, habits to a new baseline, and shifting to a new version of themselves. Exactly what I failed at, in that moment. 

I am also fascinated by how the aviation industry has improved performance so consistently over the years, being intentional about implementing learning from accidents and mistakes. (Matthew Syed’s book Black Box Thinking describes this artfully.) 

Prince George Pilot would have been awesome to talk with, learn from, and even potentially interview for the performance book I’m co-authoring with Dave Silberman. This pilot was away for training, and “how people convert learning to performance” is a huge part of our focus. 

As I became aware in the moment “watching myself in my own autopilot fast forward movie”, I could have paused and stepped 2% step outside my comfort, slowing down and continuing conversation. At the very least I could have asked this guy his name! Total failure in my own performance. 

I had become comfortable enough with initiating conversations, now I realized that the next 2% stretch was to take it one step farther. Missed it. Lesson learned. 

Part 2…

The bracelet Prince George Pilot was wearing, why is it still in the back of my mind?  

A couple days later, I remember again the Dave Hare 2011 bracelet I mentioned earlier; I feel like I should know what it’s about. So I Google it. And this gives me a little slap in the face. Dave was a copilot in Nunavut in 2011 where 12 of 15 souls onboard lost their lives as their plane crashed into a hillside in inclement weather in Nunavut. What hit me: Dave spoke up repeatedly and with increasing assertiveness to the captain that they were in trouble, and his words were disregarded. This situation is a micro example of what we see in our work with organizations and aim to address every single day – people speaking up and the layers above them “knowing best”.  Often this is an indicator of quiet and chronic organizational underperformance.

In organizations there’s no crash to investigate, it’s much less obvious… but consider this: stress is a major contributor to the leading 6 causes of death => for most people their biggest stressor is work => the most significant determinant of stress and engagement at work is your boss. And yet as we see massive burnout in organizations, these people experiencing their own crash of sorts, we are inclined to Band-Aid with mediation apps, not look deeper to rethink leadership dynamics and performance. 

An aviation lesson for business: 

We in business need to take a lesson from aviation because there are “org crashes” happening all around us: people speak up until they give up. If someone is speaking up it’s because they see something you don’t – just because you don’t see it or don’t want to see it, doesn’t mean the danger isn’t there. It means that there is truth other than your version of it, and it might be worth understanding – you might be wrong, just like me. The least likely place for solutions and innovation in an organization is at the top; we need to work together. Enable the organization to listen and learn from itself. Actively seek other possible truths. What you’re telling yourself is only one version of it – we create our truth that serves us. This is how we’re wired.

When people hesitate to speak up, when we’re not co-creating solutions, creating space for all to own (not buy-in) their part in moving forward effectively, people cannot bring their best and perform. As leaders the highest value we can create is to enable performance in others and a lot of the time that means “getting out of the way and helping find the way”. 

We teach without knowing it:

My intention above is not to at all downplay or minimize the tragedy that occurred with Dave Hare’s 2011 flight, or to do injustice to its magnitude and significance. I’m articulating the parallels and the lessons I see through my own lens, in my day-to-day. I’m grateful for this additional perspective. 

Dave Hare, as co-pilot, spoke up. Repeatedly. Dave didn’t give up. 

Dave left behind a family and clearly a slough of friends, brothers and sisters in aviation who still memorialize him, like Prince George Pilot. 

Dave gave the world important lessons to learn – not just aviation. 

Dave and Prince George Pilot met somehow, then I ended up seated next to Prince George Pilot, we happened to have a short conversation, he wore the Dave bracelet that I burned to memory, and ultimately I learned from both of them, without them knowing it. And now I’m passing this along to anyone who reads it. Leadership can come from anywhere, and so can learning.

My Learnings: 

  • Organizations and leaders could stand to learn a lot from the aviation industry in listening to and learning from inside the organization, leaders being open to being wrong can create better and better outcomes and performance. 
  • The world sometimes drops people in your path for a reason; in my case this couldn’t have been a more primed opportunity to chat with a good human, to learn, to contribute to the impact I’m having in the world, and to enjoy a conversation. The irony was all around me, I was even wearing a t-shirt I got at the Pine Needle Bike Race in PA – I have maybe worn it a dozen times, ever. Pay attention and engage – be better next time. 
  • Lesson re-learned: be more aware in the moment and breathe; sometimes your body is just carrying out its own habits, your habits of being – and those might not be serving you. 
  • It’s ok to be uncomfortable being uncomfortable – this is exactly where you need to be, it’s a signal that you’re expanding; breathe so your body can adapt in the moment and redirect the flight reaction to respond better.
  • You are a work in progress, always. Practice being better, it’s ok to fail + learn.
  • Be courageous like Dave, especially when it’s uncomfortable. The world needs you to.

What can you learn from someone today? 

Everyone has something to teach us and reciprocally we have value to provide each other if we just slow down for a second. We each have opportunities every day – courageously converse. Anyone who crosses your path can change the course of time.

Seek new possible truth, you only have one version of it and you made it up; have the courage to see from new perspectives.

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