Informal Leadership under stress

Literature about leadership most often assumes you are in full control of the environment around you. Rarely to writers in this field explore the issues of leadership under stress.

Have you ever looked around you and suddenly thought you had been transported into a Woody Allen movie?

Recently I spent an amazing 22 hours in Normanton in far North West Queensland owing to a flight that was delayed and delayed and eventually cancelled. Thirteen of those hours were spent in a very small and confining airport building where the surrounding temperature was above 35 degrees Celsius. There along with a handful of fellow stranded passengers I learned some interesting lessons about human psychology in stressful situations.

The Background

Leadership under stress


The details of the aircraft issues are too long to recount here but suffice it to say there is only one flight each day from Normanton to Cairns, which also services three other small communities in the far north west. When the flight is grounded in Cairns all these centres are affected. There were only a handful of passengers besides myself ticketed for the flight from Normanton, however there were a number waiting to embark at each of the other ports.

At the first announcement which suggested a delay of only a couple of hours we all waited calmly although with some apprehension about being able to make the connecting flights we had in Cairns. After a second and then a third announcement of further delays reality began to hit home that we were in for an inordinately long wait. The tensions began to emerge quickly – a mother anxious to get home to her children in Melbourne, tradesmen anxious to get to an urgent job, a contractor trying to meet a work deadline – as all felt stranded and powerless.

Initial Reactions

Everyone’s first natural instinct was to look for other options in terms of other flights, alternative ground transport such as bus or car hire, all of which were quickly dismissed as impractical given the remoteness of the location and the lack of ready availability of those resources.

Thoughts then turned to basic instincts.

  • I need to communicate the situation to my family or work colleagues
  • Do I have enough personal supplies such as underwear and toiletries to sustain another day or two travelling?
  • Will I be able to stay awake if this flight doesn’t arrive until the wee hours?
  • What sort of a mess will I be arriving at my next destination having no sleep?

Meanwhile the airport staff were busy enough making arrangements for revision of the connecting flights, organising catering for the stranded passengers and arranging accommodation for those facing the prospect of staying overnight in Cairns.

At least the passengers accepted that there was no point in taking out their frustration on the staff – as no amount of remonstration could make a new plane appear on the tarmac. However as further delays were announced the outside temperature increased and so did the grumblings of passengers.

Just sitting around worrying about the situation only served to increase focus on the negatives. So a plan was hatched to provide transport back into town to allow the passengers some “diversion” time to visit such local icons as The Big Crocodile or the famous Purple Pub.




It worked, and when we all reconvened at the airport after sun down psyches had again stabilised into a more acquiescent mood. The evening wait seemed to contain the longest hours with the odd arrival and departure of private aircraft adding to the frustration.

When the flight was eventually cancelled altogether, accommodation was found for us in the local caravan park and we were at least grateful for a bed and facilities to freshen up.

Coping strategies for leadership under stress

Although not life threatening these events were very distressing for some and the situation of prolonged tension needed to be managed.

Partly as a defense against my own boredom my thoughts turned to interpreting some simple leadership strategies into the scenario. I struck upon the following which might be useful in other circumstances where people are thrown together in a tense environment under some emotional strain and with urgent desires to be somewhere else, but unable to escape.

Managing self

In such situations self control is extremely important.

  • Be patient when things are beyond your control.
  • Use the forced downtime as an opportunity to deal with other things that can benefit from your uninterrupted thinking time.
  • Give those dealing with the situation some space, free from harassment, so that they can get on with their task.
  • Accentuate the positives . As one passenger put it “After all we are safe, we have shelter, we have food and drink. There is a plan albeit not to everyone’s liking to get us to our destinations. We have been kept informed although the information keeps changing, so that we can keep others informed. We have telecommunication with the outside world.”
  • Remember “it’s not all about me!” In our case there were people in the other airports who had been waiting even longer than we had and in perhaps less comfortable environments.scorpius
  • Keep things in perspective. In the cool of the evening I walked outside to feel a refreshing breeze and gaze into the night sky. Because of remoteness area in the absence of light pollution the stars were clear and bright. There above the little airport building as sharp and clear as it could be was the consolation Scorpius. I reflected that our problems were very small indeed in terms of the scale of the universe.
Managing others

It is also important to share the responsibility to help keep the atmosphere controlled, balanced, constructive and calm.

  • Engage with others in your situation. The burden of waiting is lighter when there are others to share it with.
  • Help keep the atmosphere buoyant with appropriate levity but don’t add to the stress by being too flippant.
  • It is important to identify
    • Those around you who can be relied on to lead – and encourage them;
    • Those around you who might not – ; and 
    • Those who might not be coping well and need support.
  • Conversely it is important to identify those likely to make the situation worse and adopt strategies to mitigate their negative influence.
  • Manufacture diversions if necessary to help keep minds off the main problem.

All’s Well…

Over breakfast the following morning it was apparent that the tension had been relieved with the realisation that although late we were leaving and that no-one’s life had been irreparably damaged by the experience.

There was enormous relief to see the aircraft arrive and upon boarding much good-natured banter amongst the passages from the various locations about their adventures.

And like all good Woody Allen movies we could all see the lighter side of localised predicaments. 

I will be returning to the area within the month and although trusting that I will not repeat the experience I will be prepared.

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