Leading with Emotional Literacy

Recently, this audio of a conversation between an air traffic controller and a student pilot has been doing the rounds of the internet. The student was having his third flying lesson, the first in that particular plane. The flight instructor experienced a medical emergency, leaving the student to land the plane. With guidance from an air traffic controller, the plane was landed successfully, and the outcome was positive for all involved. There have been many well-deserved accolades in the press since the event.

I have now listened to this audio multiple times and, on each occasion, I have been in awe of how the air traffic controller managed and used his emotions. Comments on social media have suggested that the air traffic controller was “just doing the job that he is trained for” and that may well be so. However, in doing that, he was able to manage and use his emotions in such a way that he was able to help achieve the best possible outcome. In that moment, regardless of what he may have initially felt, he accessed the emotions that were going to serve him, the student pilot and the flight instructor. With or without training, this, in my opinion, is an amazing accomplishment and one that I think we can learn a lot from.

Emergency! Emergency! Emergency!

While listening to the audio, I have imagined being the person I am  now and hearing that first emergency call. As I put myself into that position, I initially feel panic, fear and urgency, and my assessment is that these emotions may not be useful for managing the situation in its entirety. So, from panic, fear and urgency, how could I become the best that I could be for the situation?

For me, I think that acceptance would play a huge role: acceptance that I can’t change that the emergency has occurred, acceptance that my actions may or may not shift the outcome to one which is positive, and acceptance that I really don’t know how this is going to turn out. Perhaps calmness and peace may also be useful.

As I hear the air traffic controller make requests for information to the student, I wonder what emotions would be useful for the information gathering process? I can imagine that my default would be to ask the questions through urgency or fear. However, would these emotions be the most useful? Would curiosity be more useful, perhaps? And then I hear the air traffic controller reassure the student. Would I need compassion in order to understand what may be happening for the student and to reassure him? Would it be another emotion? At the end, when I hear the air traffic controller say “You did it mate!” I feel as though joy or celebration would be useful.

I don’t know what the air traffic controller experienced, and whether any of his emotions were similar to my interpretations. Maybe his experience was different. However, the question that keeps coming up for me is: How did he manage the emotions that weren’t going to serve the situation, and how did he gain access to emotions that served the situation so well? Each time, I am left in awe. He may or may not have training. He may have been doing his job. However, when it mattered, he managed his emotions seamlessly.

Emotional Literacy and Leadership

So, what can a leader learn from an air traffic controller? I think that we can learn to lead with emotional literacy: an awareness and understanding of the emotional spaces we are experiencing, how those emotional spaces are serving us, and what might be more useful.

As we take action throughout our day, we experience a number of emotions. We also operate from at least one underlying mood. Our moods and emotions predispose us to actions. We will have access to different action from joy, for example, to what we would have access to from fear. And so I think it is important to ask ourselves: Why are we taking the actions that we are taking? What emotions are behind those actions? Are those emotions serving us? What would be more useful?

Thinking about my own working day, I can see many opportunities to understand, manage and shift my emotions. I work in IT, where sometimes, outages occur. I may feel annoyed, anxious or frustrated that an outage happened. However, in the moment, when we are working to manage this outage, are those emotions going to serve me? What would it take for me to move to acceptance that the outage happened? What other emotions might be useful? Similarly, I may be angry that someone responded to me in a certain way. Why am I annoyed? Is it really because of their behaviour or because something within me was triggered as a result of the behaviour? What conversation should I have with that individual? What outcome do I want from the conversation? What emotion would serve me in having that conversation?

Leaders Lead People who Experience Emotions

Our own emotions are one side of the coin. Every day, we are interacting with people who are also operating from emotional spaces. How do we shift our own emotions so that we can bring out the best in others when they may, perhaps, not be able to do so for themselves? In the case of the air traffic controller and the student, I felt as though I could initially hear fear in the voice of the student. This, I think, is very understandable. However, the air traffic controller seemed to accept that as legitimate and simply focussed on how he could be that would best help the student. I feel as though he did this with ease, and I feel as though the safely landed plane is very much evidence of that.

And so, from a point of emotional literacy, we can also understand that others are experiencing moods and emotions, and we can adopt and adapt emotions that would help us interact appropriately with those people: Why is that individual doing what they are doing? What emotion might be behind that? What emotion would be useful for me right now, in helping that individual in this situation?

Emotions are Signs

Every emotion, I think, is a sign that something within us needs to be taken care of. How, as leaders, do we take those signs and use them to both understand the actions that we are taking, and to shift our moods and emotions in a way that serves ourselves, our teams and our organisation?

I wonder whether, perhaps, we should ask an air traffic controller?

Image Source: Austin Distel on Unsplash

Let me know your thoughts!

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