Fly The Plane

By Kirk Roberts, Co-Owner of Free Range Nonprofit Solutions

© Leaf | - Flying Cow Photo

© Leaf | - Flying Cow Photo

As nonprofit leaders, moments of craziness are part of the job. Whether we are coordinating day-of activities at an event or serving as a leader at a Board meeting, there are times when our patience, temper, and emotional ability to perform our roles effectively is severely tested.

I was talking with an airline pilot and asked him how he was taught to handle a crisis. He said there were three instructions: “Breath. Look around. Fly the plane.”

Breath is the first key. Our breathing is a vital body function over which we have direct and immediate physical control. By utilizing our breathing, we can adjust the fight or flight hormonal reaction to stress.

We all know how our breathing is impacted by stress. Sometimes, it is long after the stressful situation has passed that we come back to deepening our breathing. By then, we have perhaps made poor decisions or said things we regret.

What if we were to connect with our breathing when a stressful situation first presents itself?  Obviously, we cannot indulge in a 10-minute meditation when a Board member presents an insane idea which other Board members think is brilliant. But what if we take that extra beat of silence, and use that beat to be aware of our breath and deepen it? My experience has not only been that I am in better shape to respond, but often my voice may not even be needed.

That controlled breath can have an even greater impact than we realize. I was once asked what volunteer had the greatest impact on my work, and I selected a marriage and family therapist named Scott, who served as a Board President. The main lesson Scott taught me was his ability to be still when the Board discussion became silent. He gave that extra breath, and many times, someone broke that silence with a valuable perspective. When I asked him about it, he said that the extra breath not only gave him a chance to collect himself, but gave everyone in the room the same opportunity.

Looking around is the process of awareness. By noticing our circumstances and the activity happening around us, we do three things. The more obvious benefit is that we gather information which may help us make better decisions.

Two other less obvious benefits also result. First, by being in a state of awareness, we can slow down the sometimes crazed voices in our head. We may think that our thoughts are the best pathway out of a difficult situation. In reality, stress activates our amygdala, the part of the brain which influences aggression and fear. Woe be to us when our amygdala rules! But rule us it often does, unleashing mental demands to defend, attack, and otherwise make decisions which do not serve us in our roles as leaders.

The second less obvious benefit is that if we are truly observant, we are likely to see something which we do not expect. Good, bad, or indifferent, seeing something unexpected is a jolt to our thought patterns. 

During one difficult discussion, I took the opportunity to look around the room and I saw someone with a half-smile. I asked them what they were thinking, and they responded that they were thinking of a joke. When they shared it, the entire mood of the room changed, and stressful decision-making transformed into collaborative decision-making. If we were traveling down an emotional path toward confrontation or eruption, this jolt provides us with a reset opportunity.

Fly the plane seems obvious, but it must be given its due. Flying the plane means concentrating on what actually needs to be done, rather than on the urgent messages sent nonstop by the amygdala or perhaps the unhelpful actions of someone else. In flying the plane, we can rely upon one of our greatest assets: our expertise. We did not gain the position of leader from a coupon in a cereal box. We achieved it through work and the honing of our skills. Flying the plane puts those skills into use to make the best of our situation.

I use this flying metaphor when I work with student volunteers at events. These students are eager to do a good job, but they are new to the situation. I want to set the tone for them, to give them a set of instructions to approach the day. I let them know that if they breathe, look around, and fly the plane, every problem is solvable and can be greeted with good humor and a sense of calm.

I also use this metaphor as a leader at Board meetings. By breathing, looking around, and flying the plane, I become the best leader I can be. And, just as importantly, I open myself to perhaps the most important maxim for a Board leader: Trust the People in the Room. But that is a future subject.