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On my flight home from Edmonton a few weeks ago, I watched natural leadership combine with people’s instincts to care for each other, and it was amazing to witness. 

Shortly after takeoff, a woman in her late 80s fainted a few rows behind me. The person in the neighboring seat happened to be a military medic and immediately tried to find the woman’s pulse. When at first she couldn’t, she raised the call for a doctor or a nurse to help. Passengers, deep in their headphones and books and fears of flying, didn’t respond until I repeated the call in what I call my “moderator voice” (and friends teasingly call my “mother voice”). 

The Emergence of a Team

Quickly, a resident and a medical student came forward. Once the woman regained consciousness, they learned that she could only speak and understand Farsi, and they requested a Farsi speaker to help as well. A young woman came forward. A man just ahead of the patient was working toward a pilot’s license and was able to advise the medical team on how cabin pressure would affect the medical equipment.

Once this core team was assembled, they worked quickly to essentially create an on-board emergency department. They took the woman’s blood pressure and sugar and soon the resident had set up an IV with a saline drip hanging from the overhead department via a coat hanger. They gave the woman oxygen and worked to make her comfortable and calm.

The question from the beginning was whether the plane would need to make an emergency landing. The pilot needed to weigh the patient’s health with the logistical difficulty of landing this woman in a city where she had no family to support her. After a while, the resident reported that the woman was stabilized, but he wasn’t sure for how long he could keep her so. With all the information on hand, the pilot decided the plan would stay aloft and land in Ottawa, as planned, where the woman would be released to more medical staff and her own family. 

Everyone watching was amazed by the way all these people showed up and worked selflessly for hours to keep this woman safe and stable—it impressed me, too. I was also awed, though, by this real-time demonstration of what natural leadership looks like. 

The medical resident started off quite shy, but quickly stepped into the void of medical leadership. Soon he was instructing everyone and confidently relaying his evaluations to the pilot. The medic assume responsibility for the woman’s comfort and was essentially her advocate, as well as conducting examinations and comforting her. The other helpers and the flight staff recognized these leaders and helped organize those of us who were merely witnesses, moving people to make space for the team of helpers and commandeering tables for equipment. 

Leadership vs. Authority

Natural leadership is different from authority. Authority comes from your position. On the plane, the pilot was the ultimate authority, the final word on whether we were making an emergency landing; and the resident was the authority on the medical situation. The hierarchy of the authority was clear.

More nuanced is how leadership emerges—not based on external factors or hierarchies, but attributed to a person based on skill and competencies. We had a subject-matter expert; a communications expert; a logistics expert. Each became a leader and other helpers naturally gravitated to them. 

Truly, watching these natural leaders emerging was like watching an improvised ballet. The grace with which everyone assumed the roles that went with their own expertise, and the care with which everyone treated the patient, created a moving and impressive scene . 

Have you watched natural leaders emerge during a crisis? What’s the best way to allow this kind of natural leadership come forth in a hierarchical and less pressure-full environment, like the workplace? Do share your experience!

Be sure to listen to Episode 1 & Episode 2 of my podcast series; Create, Inspire, and Empower!