Five Leadership Lessons from a Flight Attendant at 35,000 Feet


We were flying from Cincinnati to Phoenix on a Boeing 747, and two flight attendants were talking in the aisle just ahead of my bulkhead seat.

It was the first day on the big plane for the younger of the two whose work before that had been on a puddle jumper Dash 8. As the senior attendant shared advice with her junior, I took notes on what I was overhearing. This was wisdom I could apply to my own world—and probably yours too.

1. “You’re on a team now.”

“You’re not the Lone Ranger any longer,” the experienced attendant advised. “You don’t have to be a doer of all things.”

I thought of my own first day years earlier as intern with a youth ministry of 450 kids. At the country church I’d just left, I was pleased to attract a couple dozen. I’d never had administrative support before. I’d never had—or needed—so many volunteers.

More than once since then I’ve been forced to remember again to relax, delegate, and celebrate how others serving with me make the ministry possible.

2. “You’ll get through it.”

“There’s going to be some problem on every flight,” the experienced attendant said. “You’ll get through it.”

I’ve discovered the right kind of encouragement is vital for the hard tasks of ministry. I’m not talking about praising people just for doing their jobs. Where I serve, we don’t award participation trophies. But every week in ministry uncovers a new problem, a new complaint, a new dysfunctional family, new brokenness in the life of someone we love.

Constantly I must remind myself, “You’ll get through it.” Regularly I tell my staff, “We’re all in this this together.”

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3. “I’m a stickler for brace position at takeoff.”

At first it seemed like an odd detail, but then I realized it was crucial. The flight attendant faces the crowd from her seat in the front of the plane as it takes off. The passengers, facing forward, are pushed back against their seats as the plane leaves the ground, but if the attendant doesn’t wear the harness and fasten her belt, she’ll be thrown into the aisle.

As a leader, I’m always facing the crowd, too. So tending to myself is vital. If I fall into the aisle because I didn’t protect myself from danger, I’ll do more than hurt myself. I’ll lose the chance to help others on their journey.

4. “Every day I remember three rules:  Don’t gossip. Don’t moan. Don’t gripe.”

“I love my job,” the senior attendant said. “It allows me to see things people only dream of.” So why spend energy on negative thinking and useless complaining?

But those flight attendants do not have the best job on the planet. I do. I tell our church staff, “You have a front row seat to the redemption of souls for eternity.” So why distract with selfish chatter when you could be watching God’s Spirit changing lives?

5. “Everyone has a first day.”

“You might get sick, spill something, or forget a drink,” the attendant said. “It’s OK. Tomorrow won’t be your first day.”

Most of us can relate to the confidence that comes with experience. When we’re overwhelmed with new challenges, it’s helpful to believe the job will be easier tomorrow or next year.

But I hope that junior attendant pushes herself to experience other first days. Surely she should seek bigger challenges than a nonstop to Arizona.

And I hope I have many first days ahead of me, too.

I hate the statistic that says churches grow more slowly after a minister has been there for decades. Does it happen because the pastor has settled into a relaxed routine and stopped calling people out of comfort zones? Has he quit having first days? I don’t want that to be true for me.

I’m glad I overheard the flight attendant’s advice. It will stick with me when I’m facing a new test, when I’m introduced to a new audience, when I’m tasked with a responsibility I’ve never tried before. I’ll remember a young worker’s first day, and I’ll decide mine can be one of my best.