My Unexpected Lesson at 15,000 Feet

I begin today’s post with a brief tale…of what could’ve been a foul, horrific experience for us all.

It happened early on during a flight home on Southwest. Just as we got to about 15,000 feet, a man a few rows in front of me (in Row #3 to be exact) well…let’s just say he lost his breakfast. Loudly. With no bag in sight to catch anything.

It went something like this. Only without the rainbows. Puking_Rainbows_8D_by_Akatsukigurl101(I promise this is as graphic as it gets, as I recognize some of you partake in your blog reading at mealtime.)

Immediately, a muffled moan of dismay rippled through the vicinity. Each of us shut our eyes, hoping that the crew would act swiftly enough to erase all sights and memories of the event before we tore open that first tiny bag of peanuts.

What came next was more than any of us expected. In fact, anyone paying attention got a strong dose of some humbling lessons about leadership and life.

I present to you now the next steps of my favorite new Southwest airline attendant duo: David and Dan (and am delighted to do so since so many of my past airline-related blogs of have been decidedly negative in experience and tone.)

The First Step: The Action Begins – The Eyes Stay Still

This first step is the one we were all hoping for. As the sick guy was whisked to the bathroom, David and Dan threw on their rubber gloves, moved everyone out of the row and personally cleaned up the scene. Briskly.

While removing all signs and smells mattered most in the moment, in retrospect the truly great lesson was how they did it. The faces of these two guys showed no irritation or disgust. No eye-rolling, no nose plugging. In fact, their faces were calm and purposeful…confidently showing that all would be well in a matter of minutes.  And so we all believed them.

That’s what great leaders do.

The Second Step: The Thumbs Up

As Dan busily finished up wiping down the area, David hung out with our sick friend, who had slowly and sheepishly returned to his seat. David smiled, asked him how he was feeling, gave him a HUGE trash bag in case there were any more “problems”…and then, literally, gave him a thumbs up.

The message to the guy was obvious:

Don’t worry about it. We all have to deal with issues and sometimes things don’t go as planned. I’m here to support you. I’ve got your back.

The message to those of us watching was equally as obvious:

Things are taken care of and everything is fine. The drama is over. It’s time to move on, so relax.   

That’s what great leaders do.

The Final Step: The Can of Seltzer

With our little incident neatly wrapped up I was left with nothing to do but sit back in reflection and awe. Things could’ve gone so differently. After all, you never really know who you’re going to find on an airplane.


A different crew could’ve been slower to remedy the situation…they could’ve been judgmental and made us all uncomfortable…they could’ve been so matter-of-fact as to appear cold or arrogant. None of that happened.

I approached each attendant separately to tell him how much I appreciated his swift work, grace and compassion.

Here’s how each responded:

Dan: (shrugging but with a small smile): “It’s no problem. I used to be an E.M.T. so this was nothing, believe me.  And the woman sitting by the window really helped out.”

David: (shrugging but with a small smile): “Well thank you…but it really wasn’t a big deal. Can I get you something more to drink? More seltzer water? Why not take the whole can?”

These two guys weren’t faking their humility. They knew it was their job to lead the way, to take on any incident – planned or otherwise – with energy and commitment.

When it came time to take a compliment, they were gracious enough to accept it, but also credited others, and kept the good energy flowing by giving back.

Dan even kept fighting me on my gratitude, saying what he did was really just a very small thing.

And that, I told him, was exactly my point. Sometimes we get so wrapped up searching for the big, great leaders in our lives that we forget to keep our eyes open to the people all around us – those who take a potentially problematic situation and handle it, almost instinctively, with uncanny action and grace. These lessons are everywhere. We just need to pay attention.

Which, by the way, is what great leaders do.

Wrapping it Up

I’ve said this before about lessons coming from unexpected places (remember my favorite Starbucks manager?) When we first boarded the plane the two guys seemed like nice enough fellows…but I never thought I’d find myself so humbled by them.

In the end, they reminded me of something important. While crappy things happen in work and in life, it’s not the events themselves that matter. It’s how we handle them that make all the difference.

So BRAVO to them. And BRAVO to Southwest…who recruited David and Dan in the first place, and in doing so made sure that true leaders can be found everywhere. Especially in Row #3.

This week…

We all try to do it, but this week I encourage you to join me in taking special care to follow the path of our two new heroes.

Practice acting swiftly and getting things done (with no eye rolling!)…support those who do their best…and when they come through in the end, give them a great smile, perhaps accompanied by a thumbs up.

Then see…and feel…what a difference it makes.

Now go do good…and do it well.

PS – After chugging my full can of seltzer water I got right to work on this blog post. Then I marched up the aisle and snapped a photo of my new favorite leaders.

Check them out…and thanks guys!

Dave and Dan SW


40 responses to “My Unexpected Lesson at 15,000 Feet”

  1. Mary Gross Avatar
    Mary Gross

    Thanks, Deidre for the great reminder that people in positions of serving others deserve the thanks and gratitude for the simple things they do. As a society, we are quick to point out big heroes leaving the everyday heroes in their wake. Glad you had a good flight!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      I agree…the great leaders out there are obvious. But it’s the little things that make all the difference…especially for those of us who have to sit by and watch how others actions will make our life (or flight) that much better or worse! Thanks for the comment!

  2. Melissa Mendes Campos Avatar

    Awesome post. We all come up against those not-so-rainbow barf moments in our leadership lives, and it’s easy to forget that how we approach them can make them either easier to deal with or worse. It’s so important to highlight those everyday leaders who not only take care of business but do it with authenticity, humanity, and grace. Thanks!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks very much for giving this a read, Melissa…and I’m glad you used the word “grace”. I find that word defines so much about a person…how they handle a situation and how they relate to others. More and more I try to model myself after people who exude grace at every turn – such a great way to be!

  3. Clark Avatar


    Great post – though the title – “My…lesson…” can hopefully transform into “Our” (speaking for other readers and myself) lesson!

    And bigger lessons in business management. I have a feeling that the culture set forth by Southwest Airlines makes it easier for line folks like Dan and David to act in such a manner. If your employee sat is generally very high, a little hiccup (or barf) won’t set you off, but, if you’re constantly on edge, like many air employees are, because of their relationship with leadership, then it’s more likely that situations like this, would not go as nicely…

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Absolutely agree…in this case our unexpected leaders may have learned or been encouraged by those with the actual authority – those at the head of Southwest who knew exactly what you were talking about. Thanks for the great comment!

  4. Karen Jackson Avatar

    I needed to hear your story today. Sometimes we all need to be reminded to find the positives in a situation or person.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks for your comment, Karen – and that’s a great way to look at this story. Everyone’s got something positive inside them…and when that positivity comes out, especially when it’s done with such humility…it should be recognized and celebrated.

  5. Suzanne Oehler Avatar

    Thanks for a great post to kick off my day! Yes, it’s the “little” things like this that make a big difference – leading by example.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      That’s a great point! Sometimes we lead by example just by being the great leaders we can be…and we do it so naturally we don’t even know how it impacts others…or who might be watching (and writing up a little blog post about it!)

  6. Kathie Kramer Ryan Avatar
    Kathie Kramer Ryan

    Thanks so much for sharing this story. As queen of the eye-roll, it’s good for me to be reminded how graciously and positively we can choose to handle a situation. Kudos to Dan and David. They look as nice as they’ve shown themselves to be! 🙂

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Trust me…they are…and I’m right there with you on the eye-roll royalty list. I think that’s why I was so impressed when they didn’t let their eyes move an inch 🙂 Thanks for posting!

  7. Steve Coopersmith Avatar

    Dierdre –
    What a wonderful, uplifting post. Great start to my morning!

    – Steve

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks so much, Steve…glad to hear it got your day started off right! Thanks for giving it a read 🙂

  8. Patricia Costa Avatar
    Patricia Costa

    Thanks Deirdre for the great reminder of how to handle not so nice things that happen. And also for you taking the time to thank these two Gentlemen (capital G is not a mistake!). If more of us did that more often, what a nicer world this could be.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Great comments! And I love your emphasis on the capital “G”…couldn’t agree with you more!

  9. James Lester Avatar
    James Lester

    What a great way to start the morning.. But I actually read the beginning of this blog while eating breakfast. S

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Oops…well, at least I used rainbows as a substitute for the actual image. You might not have made it through the post if you’d gotten a gander at the real thing. 🙂 Thanks for your comment James!

  10. Hanna Cooper Avatar

    Great post, Deirdre – I hope you send this to Southwest Airlines! There are all times when the job of the leader is cleaning up the vomit, and these guys’ willingness to do it with such ease and grace is a model for us all. I love your reminder that leadership is everywhere, all the time.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks Hanna – and as I read your comment I realized that you’re right – “cleaning up the vomit” is a great metaphor for so many unpleasant things we have to do each day. Nice to know something so literal (and nasty) can work on so many levels!

  11. Patti Testerman Avatar

    I agree with Hanna about sending this post to Southwest Airlines. You do a great job of observing and sharing stories about people acting with grace in situations that most of us take for granted (or try to ignore). That’s a type of leadership, too! Thank you.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks to YOU, Patti, for taking the time to read the posts…I’m so pleased you feel they are worth your time! And after getting so many suggestions to do so, I have indeed sent the post to Southwest…we shall see what happens and I’ll keep you posted!

  12. Rebecca Alvarez Avatar
    Rebecca Alvarez

    Great post, Deirdre. I enjoyed the story and the lesson is one we all need a reminder of sometimes!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks very much, Rebecca…so glad you enjoyed it! Appreciate your taking the time to read it, and comment…

  13. Natasha Avatar

    This is a great reminder that great leaders are calm under pressure and are dedicated to showing class during a difficult situation. Very inspiring example to follow.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      It’s that great word “class”…along with my other favorite word of “grace” that really came through with these guys. Definitely inspiring! Thanks for your comment!

  14. Betty Owen Avatar

    Wow! That is a beautiful story–a story of heart, told from your heart, that went straight to MY heart! Thanks for sharing such an amazing story and for equating it to a valuable life lesson.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Wow back at you Betty – what an amazingly meaningful comment! I so appreciate your kind words and am extremely pleased you were touched by the story. Indeed…those two guys started it by going straight to MY heart!

  15. Budd Rubin Avatar
    Budd Rubin

    Thanks for this wonderful story.
    I’m flying up to San Jose tomorrow on SW and plan to share it with the flight attendants

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      How great! Thanks for letting others in the Southwest family know how much we appreciate their classy culture. Thanks Budd!

  16. Denise McMahan Avatar

    Thanks for the great post, Deirdre. I needed to read that one after I was on a flight last week with “another carrier.” Their employees demonstrated a surprising amount of unprofessional behavior (yelling, arguing, gossiping) when things got rough with a 7-hour flight delay. It was awful. My colleague and I were shocked and embarrassed for them. Long story short, I totally agree with your message about how great leaders really show their grit when times are tough…and barf is tough!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      I’m sorry to hear about your contrasting experience…and I know how miserable a flight with the wrong crew can be. Thanks for sharing…and hopefully your next one will be calm and peaceful. You deserve it!

  17. Brett Avatar

    Thanks for this! First, great lesson from those guys. I flew Southwest not so long ago. I’d never flown with them before. The staff was wonderful. I was reading a book that referenced ‘an airline’s’ core value of humor. By the end of the flight, I was sure it must have been Southwest that the author was referring to.

    In addition to the lessons, thanks for your example of noticing and showing appreciation. Your example was as much a leadership lesson as the flight attendants’ responses.

    I just asked the Moja-Link Group in LinkedIn about blogs that they followed as nonprofit pros of various shapes and sizes. I’m glad someone suggested yours.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks so much, Brett – for your thoughtful comments and kind words. I’m with you on Southwest – this was definitely more core to who they are and not an isolated incident. So pleased the Moja-Link Group suggested you give this a read!

  18. Budd Avatar

    I few round trip from San Diego to San Jose this past weekend on Southwest Air.
    I gave both north and south bound crews copies of your Newsletters and told them
    that I knew you.
    They loved your kind words.
    One of the flight attendants said he knew Flight Attendants Dave and Dan and would be sure to give them copies.

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      How wonderful Budd! Thanks for taking the extra step (quite the leadership move!) to bring the copies onto your flights – I’m so delighted that the crew appreciated them!

  19. Heidi Hancock Avatar

    These guys are not only down-to-earth leaders, but heroes in my book. They seem to set a wonderful example with their attention and humility. So glad you singled them out for praise!

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Thanks very much – and me, too! They so deserved it – and are my heroes as well!

  20. Caroline Garza Avatar

    Hi, Deirdre! My Coworkers and I LUVed reading this, and we will be sharing it with David and Dan and formally commending them. Thank you–we look forward to seeing you onboard again soon!

    ~Caroline Garza
    Southwest Airlines Culture Services Outreach Correspondent

    1. Deirdre Maloney Avatar
      Deirdre Maloney

      Caroline – how terrific that you will formally commend David and Dan, and that you took the time to share it with some co-workers! And yes, you’ll DEFINITELY see me on another Southwest flight!