Posted by: Korry | January 17, 2012

The Key to Being a Great Leader…or Great Captain

It’s the strangest thing, really. Whenever I meet a captain for the first time, I can generally tell within just a few minutes whether this person is going to be a great captain. It’s strange to me because I can make this judgment with a high level of accuracy (in my mind at least) without probably even seeing the captain give a crew briefing, make a takeoff (let alone a landing) or handle any number of issues that could arise on a given flight.

Sure, I realize the incredible power of first impressions, (enter cliché here) but I think there’s more to it than that, and so does Malcolm Gladwell, who discusses this concept at length in his book, Blink. Gladwell believes the human mind can “thin slice” all sorts of things, taking a small sample and creating highly accurate assessments of everything from the likelihood of a couple having a successful marriage to sizing people up during a first encounter.

I believe this same concept explains why it’s relatively easy to spot great captains and great leaders, and it has everything to do with setting the tone.

When I think of great leaders, I think of people like Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. I think of cultural leaders like Martin Luther King. I think of business leaders like Continental’s Gordon Bethune, GE’s Jack Welch, IBM’s Louis Gerstner and most recently Ford’s Alan Mulally. While the personal styles of these leaders varies greatly, they all have one thing in common: they set the tone. They dreamed big, set huge stretch goals, and truly led from the front. Their energy and enthusiasm caught fire with the people they led and helped change the world.

Volumes have been written about what makes a great leader, but when you boil all of it down, being a great leader really is all about setting the tone. Countries evolve, businesses turnaround and cockpits are managed well thanks to leaders who understand that they must set the tone for their teams and lead by example. I believe leaders who understand this can easily be thin-sliced in just a few minutes because everything about them–their personality, their mannerisms, etc.–stems from the belief of setting a positive, open and fun tone from the beginning.

Sure, great leadership involves being ethical, having a strong character, treating others with dignity and respect, etc, but isn’t that really just a part of setting the tone? I mean, if a leader in business, politics or the flight deck wasn’t ethical, didn’t have strong character, and didn’t treat others with dignity and respect, isn’t that setting the tone, too? Only in that case, those working with the leader would emulate the same negative traits, giving little hope that the team could function well. 

In my world, I think the best people at sniffing out great leaders are the flight attendants. I watch them during crew briefings, I listen to how they speak to the captain, and I experience the level of service (or disservice) they provide to the flight deck crew during the flight. Captains who set the tone in a positive way command respect, attention and great service from their crew not because they dictate it but because they earned it. They are masters at working in teams.

Isn’t the same true in your world? Don’t you find that your boss sets the tone?

I can remember a time growing up when my mom worked for a boss she truly despised. Day after day she would come home depressed and demoralized. Getting up each morning was a true chore. Her boss set the tone, and it wasn’t a pretty one. Do you think people bent over backwards for that boss? Do you think they were willing to work late or really push to meet divisional goals? I don’t think so either.

On the flip side, we all know people who work for great bosses (or at least I hope we do!!). These people talk about feeling energized to go to work, eager to take on tough projects and ready to face new challenges. My guess is their bosses are setting a very positive tone and I bet their teams succeed.

We all have choices to make in life and few of them will be as important day-to-day as how you decide to set the tone. Whether you’re running a company, a team, a cockpit or a family at home, how you set the tone will determine whether you are a great leader or not.

We all have that ability. So the real question is what tone will you choose to set?

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Responses

  1. […] I wrote at length about what makes a great leader or a great captain. I talked about how captains set the tone, both positively and negatively. Thankfully, the vast […]

  2. […] seniority for a 30-50% pay raise, the satisfaction of being the Captain and the ability to set the tone? It’s a question of quality of life and “comfortability” vs. money and […]


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