January 6, 2020
Photo courtesy Pixabay
by Dave Bushy
“Find Out Who Your Friends Are” is a song written by Casey Beathard and Ed Hill, recorded by American country music artist Tracy Lawrence.
I never hear this song without thinking of dear friends – the ones who have always been there for me – through good times and bad – whether I was the boss or just their friend.
Being a senior executive in flight operations at an airline is unique in many ways. Invariably, you are a line pilot who has spent years flying airplanes around the world. You’ve flown with a thousand other pilots and progressed from being a junior crewmember to a captain. You become eligible for promotion due to seniority, but you must earn your wings each time you qualify in a new aircraft and especially as a captain. The saying goes, “You’re only as good as your last landing.”
And then a handful of pilots get selected for a management position. That happened to me when I became an assistant chief pilot, helping to lead 400 pilots at a pilot base. Within a short time of being named to the job, a handful of friends I had known over the years contacted me and congratulated me. Some advised me to be careful and not let it go to my head. Others joked, “Don’t forget where you came from!” It was the best advice I could have ever received.
Something else happened. Within hours of occupying my new office, I was met by a veritable cavalcade of well-wishers, many of whom I barely knew and some who had never spoken to me. Often, they would cluster around my office and tell me how great it was that I got the job. Others would laugh at the smallest joke I might make. Some even acted as if they hung on every word I spoke.
For a while, I started to think that I had somehow developed a super power – that I was smarter and more capable than I had ever been. That didn’t last long, as my boss, the chief pilot – who was also a long-time friend – reminded me, “They’re your best friends now, but it won’t last if you don’t stay in the job. Stuff like this happens when you’re a boss. Just remember you serve every pilot – not just those who act like your friends.”
I worked hard in the role for a couple of years and then elected to return to flying airplanes. One day I packed up my office stuff, put it in a cardboard box and donned my uniform again. I was soon headed out to an airplane to fly airplanes full time. I was excited to get back to my roots. As I walked through the terminal, at various times I met former well-wishers who had so “appreciated” me and laughed at my jokes when I was a manager. I smiled and tried to make eye contact. To a man, they walked by, probably not even recognizing me.
When I arrived at my airplane, I ran into an old friend. A quick smile and a sarcastic, “Came back to work for a living, did ya?” made me laugh. Here was a friend who had been one before, during and after my management tenure. I knew then that there is a chasm between those who act like your friends and those who really are your friends. I also realized that friendship cannot be confused with leadership or followership.
We are hired to lead and to serve everyone in an organization. While our friendships sometimes coincide with those we serve, those who suddenly act like our friends deserve no special treatment – nor should they unduly influence our decisions or opinions about ourselves. We come into roles with a job to do and a constituency that includes everyone in our organization.
Not many people get to see what I saw as a manager, as promotion to a supervisory position in a corporation is usually a one-way trip, with no return to the “line,” for most people.
I was selected to return to management positions two more times at my airline, ending up as a senior vice president. Each time I left full-time flying and assumed a new role, I chuckled at how smart and funny I had suddenly become and always remembered the advice I had been given by my chief pilot friend many years before. It served me well, because I was always able to realize that the quiet people who just did their jobs, who didn’t try to act like friends, still needed to be served by me.
It’s best to recognize that being a manager doesn’t make your jokes any funnier, your words more profound, or make you better looking. But it can seem that way – unless or until you “find out who your friends are” first!