Leadership Lessons from Captain Daniel Something-or-Other

Seasoned international business traveler Mike, a client of mine, routinely flies to more than 20 countries from his home base in Germany. While he consistently wracks up more than 100,000 air miles per year, he told me about one flight that he will never forget.

That Wednesday morning, as he rolled his overnight bag down the jet bridge to board flight #4U9525 from Spain to Germany, he was struck by the eerie silence around him. No one talked—to one another or on their phones. Once on board, Mike noticed that the normally oversold flight looked nearly empty with less than ¼ of the seats occupied. On this particular morning, the typically friendly, highly-caffeinated flight attendants wore tight, forced smiles. Mike told me that he didn’t see a single smile on any face around him. He wasn’t smiling, either.

A flight attendant gave the usual pre-flight speech about seatbelts, oxygen masks, and emergency exits. Mike noticed that most passengers gave her their full, somber attention. And then the plane sat without moving for several minutes.

At last the intercom cracked, and the pilot introduced himself as Captain Daniel something-or-other, Mike couldn’t remember his last name. Another long pause followed. Then, with a halting voice, the captain went off-script to address the passengers and crew members:

“The tragic events of yesterday weigh on all of our hearts and minds, and we remain devastated by what happened,” the pilot began.

The previous day—Tuesday, March 24, 2015—another Airbus owned by Germanwings on flight #4U9525 left from this same airport in Barcelona, Spain, headed to Düsseldorf, Germany. On that flight, co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked the pilot out of the cockpit and deliberately crashed the jet outside of Nice in the French Alps. One-hundred and forty-four passengers along with six crew members were killed instantly.

“All of us—passengers and crew alike—feel scared and sickened as we sit here taking the same flight today,” the pilot continued, honestly echoing the sentiments of all onboard.

Then the pilot said something that no public relations team could have come up with:

“I want you to know something. I am a very happy, fortunate man. I married my childhood sweetheart, Agnes, nearly 15 years ago. We have two beautiful daughters together. Alisha is 4, and she is dainty and sweet like her mother. When I come home each day, she jumps into my arms even if I’ve been gone only an hour. Lesa is 9, and she is my regular hiking companion. Lesa loves to be outdoors,” the pilot told the passengers.

“Nothing can erase the events of yesterday from our spirits today,” the pilot spoke very deliberately. “But it’s important for you know that tonight, nothing will prevent me from tucking in my three lovely ladies who are waiting for me at home once we land safely.”

Mike told me that he could see the tension roll off the shoulders of those around him. He heard a collective sigh from the passengers, as if all had been holding their breath since entering the plane.

How did the pilot quickly soothe the anxiety of the passengers and crew? He modeled the emotional intelligence of a truly great leader when he: (1) acknowledged the elephant in the room, (2) spoke from his heart, and (3) shared a glimpse of his greater purpose with those around them.

Mike told me this story during a break, as I conducted a leadership workshop in his organization. What motivated him to share this particular story with me? The workshop theme was…

“How Leaders Build Trust”

I asked him to share this with the entire group after the break, because this story nails the three actions that the best leaders take…

1. Instead of ignoring the uncomfortable situation, the pilot addressed the passengers’ concerns head on.

Captain Daniel could not take away the terrible tragedy that came before him. But he did something that all leaders need to do to successfully lead, especially in times of change. He talked about the elephant in the room that many would have been tempted to ignore.

2. Rather than spouting a “company line” or reading from a script, he spoke from his heart, revealing his very human side.

He empathized with them as fellow human beings. He reinforced some of the values they shared that would help them thrive. Everyone listening could relate to the man, husband, father, and hiker speaking—instead of picturing a faceless, buttoned-down pilot named Captain Daniel something-or-other who may have just had the worst morning of his life.

3. Finally, in place of giving the facts about the flight (the outside temperature, cruising altitude, flight duration, etc.) he painted a compelling vision of the positive things that he—and others—expected to enjoy again in the near future.

He addressed their concerns, but he didn’t leave people in a place of riveting fear. Instead, he told them what he intended to do, and he followed through—piloting the flight #4U9525 successfully to Germany.


Leaders don’t inspire others to action in the face of ambiguity or difficult circumstances by practicing inaction. They don’t inspire others by reading aloud a memo from “upstairs.” And leaders don’t inspire others with facts but with a vision that people wish to get behind. No, when trust is low and the stakes–and emotions–run high, leaders act like Captain Daniel.

  • What are you doing as a leader to address your employees’ concerns, even the ones they don’t directly voice?
  • How are you revealing your own humanity while providing reassurance and empathy?
  • What vision do you offer that ties your success with their success?

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