Center for Organizational Leadership

Empowering Effective Leaders

By Dr. Kevin Kehl

Dr. Kevin Kehl, Dean of Academic Resources MAOL Instructor

Navigating Change with Trust, Safety, and Communication

The connections between the world of air travel and leadership have been marinating in my mind for many years. A recent bumpy trip has reminded me of a few significant changes and disruptions during my career journey. If you remain in leadership for very long at all, the odds are that you have experienced change on a continuum from minor irritation to something that may have felt life-altering. Some days are clear when you and your team have exciting momentum, like riding the jet stream. On those days, it’s much easier to imagine that everyone will meet their individual and organizational goals.  On other days, the destination is obscured from sight as if passing through a cloud bank or storm. 

Despite my travel involving vacations, conferences, and living overseas for several years, I do not consider myself someone who enjoys flying. Flight delays and cancellations can be extremely frustrating, but it’s the unexpected noises, drops in altitude, and rocking of the plane that make my palms sweat. While most of these changes have been minor and over in a matter of seconds, there have been a few times that severe turbulence resulted in a drop of several hundred feet before stabilizing. On another occasion, the flight plan had to be altered significantly because the destination airport had lost all power, adversely affecting the radar system. I can recall the pilots on each flight communicating the priority of passenger safety and comfort. When things are going smoothly, I take this for granted. It’s when I experience change that I require reminders and clarity from the pilot or flight crew that steps are being taken to address the changing dynamics of the flight. On further reflection, it is easy to imagine that pilots and their crews must also put their trust in engineers, mechanics, air traffic controllers, and ground crews. 

As one who both leads and is led, I am reminded that my true identity is not found in any single or combination of roles I may fulfill. Rather, I understand that we are interdependent upon one another and dependent on the Creator whose image we bear.   Ultimately my safety and well-being must be entrusted into His hands. I believe that God’s Word and activity culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus continues to communicate that He can be trusted and that I am safe in Him.  With this in mind, I can more easily see that I have been entrusted with opportunities and responsibilities to lead my fellow image-bearers.  Leadership in this context is a lot like flying a passenger plane: people trust that the flight crew will help pilot them safely to their destination.   

Trust within the organization is foundational for true safety to be realized. Pilots trust passengers to comply with safety instructions and remain calm during the flight, while passengers must trust that pilots are competent to navigate the aircraft safely. When significant change is experienced within our organizations, we often sense a loss of control and respond in fear. Leaders must act intentionally to remind and restore a sense of trust among those they lead. 

Safety is priority number one.  Passengers display the importance of their safety and their fellow travelers by following safety instructions. Pilots carefully bear responsibility for passengers and crew member safety as they follow protocol and procedure with laser focus. Whether leading or being led, we must act on behalf of the other reminding one another that each of us is infinitely more important than a tool to meet a production goal or a package to be delivered just a little bit faster than the competitor.

Effective communication is critical. Pilots interact with crews on the ground and in the air to pass on critical information to passengers. The clarity and timing of this communication are done to reassure passengers of their safety. Updates from the pilot intended to calm and comfort passengers are often made worse when the sound system of the aircraft is static or the pilot is speaking too fast.  For their part, passengers consult with the flight crew to address concerns and request assistance during the flight. Leaders must ensure that they speak with clarity as they provide updates to the change that is being experienced within the organization.  Muffled or communication that is clouded in ambiguity will likely contribute to an increase in fear and anxiety. The care we convey in our communication will help to instill confidence to move forward even in uncertain times.

● Communicate the what and the why. Leaders should be able to clearly articulate how an intended or impending change connects with the organization’s purpose. Without this connection the necessity of change will be difficult for others to see.

● Acknowledge fears and concerns. Leaders should not feel threatened by fears and concerns associated with change. Squelching these their concerns will likely negatively impact the level of trust. 

● Celebrate individual and collective success. Even during seasons of uncertainty and significant change, there is much to celebrate. 

● Practice portion control. Like healthy eating, smaller amounts of information may help individuals process change, increase their ability to meet short-term goals, and improve overall morale.

● Remember that change is not always linear.  A change in one area often leads us to recognize the need for additional adjustments.

Trust and safety are two sides of the same coin.  Whether it be the flight crew and passengers or you and those you lead and serve, if safety is to be authentically experienced then trust is foundational to leading in times of change. Changes also provide a unique opportunity for leaders to build on trust that can lead ultimately to well-being and workplace engagement.

Those we lead want to know if we have their safety and well-being in mind.  Whether change is experienced as a terrifying drop in altitude can they trust that we will move forward together safely and productively to the other side? What kind of investments can we make now to build trust and ensure the safety of those in my organization? 

Be ready, change is just over the horizon!

Topics: Leadership