Leading from the front: COVID-19 tales

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I was getting settled on a British Airways plane, due to take off from London Heathrow airport to Amman, Jordan a few hours before many airports closed down for commercial flights in the Middle East region and beyond back in March 2020.

After the passengers were on board the plane, many were on their cell phones and other devices following the breaking news on CNN, BBC and other news agencies. Lots of alarming headlines about the back-then new virus, airport closures, quarantine measures, travel restrictions and pandemic updates. A tense situation indeed.

The captain from his cockpit in a calm, confident and re-assuring voice, kept the passengers informed about the weather conditions, the expected length of the trip and when he predicted the plane would be given the green light to take-off from London. His approach sent a clear message: all under control, capable leadership in command.

To everyone’s surprise, some passengers at the last minute influenced by the alarming news on their devices, decided they want to cancel their trip and stay in London. They informed the cabin staff of their wish. The crew facilitated their disembarking from the aircraft. A few minutes later, a second group of passengers expressed the same wish, causing even further delay. This is when the pilot decided to take an unprecedent action. To lead from the front!

The captain stepped out from his cockpit and addressed the passengers from inside the cabin, looking them face to face. He held the microphone that is often used by the cabin staff in order to make his announcement. In an exceptional well-balanced address to the passengers, he was able to deliver the message in a focused, firm and empathetic manner. The pilot was particularly measured in his approach, not allowing feelings of frustration or anger to take over.

Focus: “We would like to fly you to Amman and we wish to take off as soon as possible”, he clearly expressed the goal. “Every time passengers leave the aircraft, we have to off load their luggage, putting an extra load on the ground staff and more delays to our take-off schedule,” he emphasized.

Firm: “Anyone who wishes to disembark, can you please do so now,” he stressed, “as we need to close the aircraft door and prepare for departure. I will walk down the aisle, if you have questions or need assistance, please let me know.”

As he walked down the aisle, he took control of the situation. He did not leave the cabin crew to face this major challenge without providing his personal support, reassurance, executive presence and leadership from the front. I felt that the situation was now under control and my trust in his capabilities skyrocketed. This is a leader who faces challenges head-on and takes charge. Following that, no one else expressed hesitation or the need to leave the aircraft. The door was closed, and we were finally able to take off.

On the national level, her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth who rarely addresses the nation except during Christmas, also decided to lead from the front, and exceptionally delivered a special address. “We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again,” she reassured the nation. “We will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return.” She expressed her confidence and trust in the nation’s ability to face the challenge.

“We know that Corona virus will not overcome us. As dark as death can be, particularly for those suffering with grief, light and life are greater.” Words of hope, empathy and comfort by the Queen. First class communication, emotional intelligence and leadership.
Effective leadership is a key differentiator across the board, in public, private and the non-profit sector. In emergency or crisis situations, the role of leadership is even more critical and impactful. As the saying goes; “when the sea is calm, everybody is a good sailor.” It is during storms that a leader’s capabilities are put to the test and the spotlight is focused on the leadership in order to provide direction, guidance and support. In both cases above, leadership on a plane and by a head of state, the leaders took unprecedented measures to be visible, present, to encourage and to demonstrate that there is “an adult in the room” who is taking charge, communicating with confidence and reassuring people at a time of change, uncertainty and challenge.

Regrettably, on the very opposite side of the spectrum, there is anecdotal evidence of corporate “leaders” who have attempted to lead via written communication, without engaging in conversations with their teams. The lack of trust, engagement and followership in these cases have been very significant.

In a Harvard Business Review article “Are You Leading Through the Crisis … or Managing the Response?” by Eric J. McNulty and Leonard Marcus, the authors refer to the pitfall of forgetting the human factor. “While it may seem obvious, crises are crises because they affect people. However, leaders can instead become trapped by focusing on the daily metrics of share price, revenue, and costs. These are important, but they are the outcome of the coordinated efforts of people. Organizations exist in order to accomplish together things that individuals cannot do alone.”

When leaders stand up shoulder to shoulder in an emotionally intelligent manner with their group during times of trouble and deliver a message of support and encouragement in person, different outcomes are possible, trust is enhanced and no matter how difficult the news, everyone is able to weather the storm together.

The pilot managed to land us safely in Amman, Jordan. While we arrived late and had to be patient as he dealt with the pre-departure challenges in London, we still managed to reach our destination safely. During challenging times, people are not on the lookout for managers who manage the day-to-day, but for leaders who lead from the front to inspire, provide vision and comfort them.


Ayman Madkour is a Cairo-based professional with a global exposure to 37 countries on five continents. He is a certified talent, human resources and leadership development consultant and senior facilitator, coach, assessor, story teller and author. Ayman delivers support to individuals as well as private, public, governmental and non-profit organizations in person and virtually.

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