As a lifelong economy-flying patron, I’ve never flown first class. I’ve watched for years, flight after flight, the highly successful and esteemed first-class passenger enter the plane before me, place their luggage in the spacious overhead compartments, and take their oversized seats with dignity and class. I’ve always cautioned myself against becoming envious of people, (as it’s based off of ephemeral snapshots of their lives and inevitably leads to dissatisfaction) but I must admit I’ve succumb to envy, and even resentment, of the first-class passenger a time or two in my lifetime. Even with my wholehearted attempts to fight against it, the first-class passenger has long-represented aloofness in my eyes.
But on Monday, September 22nd there I was, on the first leg of a flight from Jackson, MS to Chicago by way of Atlanta, sitting comfortably and contently in first-class with the rest of the distinguished. At last, I had arrived I thought… about darn time, I thought. I boarded the plane early and avoided the lines; I had excess space for my luggage in the overhead bin; and I sat down in a king-sized, cushiony seat with a bottle of water to my right awaiting my arrival. What’s more, the flight attendant immediately asked if she could get me anything within seconds of taking my seat. The economy passengers hadn’t even entered the plane, and the flight attendant was already asking me what else I needed to solidify the royal, first-class treatment.
Let the record show, I would never expend my money or my credit union’s money on first-class seats. I’m far too cheap for that. The first-class seats were purchased by Lending Solutions Inc (LSI), a vendor of ours, who were hosting a colleague and I to their headquarters in Elgin, IL to see their operation in action. If I didn’t make it obvious enough that this was my first time in first-class for the plane ride, I’m certain everyone around us knew I had never been chauffeured in a limo before. It was a dead giveaway, when, immediately upon entering the limo, I started playing with all the gadgets and had our driver snap endless pictures of us in the backseat like I was on top of the Eifel Tower or something.
After a brief tour of LSI’s facility and discussion about our working relationship, their supreme hospitality continued when they treated us to the Bears v. Eagles game on Monday night. Outside the stadium, an hour before kickoff, a Colin Kaepernick football jersey triggered a conversation between my co-worker and I, for which I was unprepared. In an effort for full disclosure, the co-worker was my subordinate and happened to be an African-American woman. As she became most passionate about her convictions and stance, my experience in HR and my Danger Radar urged me to disengage, stop the discussion, and rough transition to a discussion about unicorns or the beautiful Chicago skyline hovering above scenic Lakeshore Drive. I ignored my paranoid judgment and we proceeded to discuss a heavy and sensitive topic.
What started with a personal opinion that kneeling during our national anthem is disrespectful (and Mr. Kaepernick could use other methods for bringing racial inequality to the limelight) ended with a meaningful discussion about racial inequality and police brutality. The conversation began to turn when I stopped trying to have an opinion and “behave” like a boss. Instead, I began to listen. When I engaged my ears and disengaged my mouth, I began to witness a lot of anger and disappointment from her. This co-worker persuaded me to focus on the issue Kaepernick was protesting, rather than the method in which he was taking a stand by taking a seat.
I learned. My opinion and stance on the issue changed. I too became outraged and disheartened that that such injustices were still occurring in 2016. This experience reminded me of a lesson in leadership I continue to be taught over and over again. I’m not always there to have all the answers or convince others of my opinion. Sometimes, even though my job title may try to deceive me and make me think otherwise, I’m actually there to be the pupil and to learn from those I manage. Not a lesson you’re taught ever day in management school!
While I’ll refrain from being disingenuous and be forthright in my admission of just how cozy and nice those first-class seats were, I will say the most effective leaders I’ve ever witnessed in education, sport, and business all have this one thing in common: they don’t lead from first-class, they lead from coach.