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In our confusing and chaotic times, we do not need technocrats, economists, and politicians to craft their complex programs to solve our problems. We need captains who selflessly dedicate themselves to defending the common good…

john horvatTraveling by air these days can be stressful. It is increasingly difficult to go on a trip without some incident happening like the recent tussle on United Airlines Flight 3411. More often, however, flights are being canceled or delayed due to mechanical or weather problems. This can lead to hours of waiting at the gates compounded by the constant uncertainty about what is going on. However, enduring these incidents can be a real lesson about society in general.

I experienced two flights during a recent trip that displayed opposite ways of dealing with problems. It got me thinking about what is needed in times of crises on a larger scale.

A Slight Delay Becomes a Nightmare

The first incident was a short one-hour flight that would generally present few problems. This particular six o’clock flight was due to arrive at its destination at seven. The trouble began with a short half-hour delay. Apparently, there was a small mechanical problem that needed to be fixed and would only take a short while to remedy.

The short while soon became a long delay as problems compounded. One hour, two hours, three hours passed and we waited. Waiting is always difficult, but the worst thing was the unknown. No one seemed to know what was going on or at least would not tell us. We were left in the dark. The personnel at the desk, although polite, were hardly reassuring.

The situation started to get ugly when the captain and crew inexplicably walked out of the plane and left the scene. We did not know why they left but later figured out they had timed out their hours and by law could not fly. It was later announced that another plane had been found and that all were instructed to scramble over to another gate in the next terminal.

There was no plane at the next terminal. Passengers started to get angry and confront the poor airline representative left at the desk. People began to make problems and create scenes. No one seemed to be in charge. A plane finally arrived, but then we were told that the pilots and crew had been called to the airport and not arrive for another hour. After a time of chaos and confusion, the plane took off after midnight. An hour later, we landed, and our nightmare was over.

A Similar Situation Develops

I would have typically dismissed the incident as just another misadventure that has become part of traveling in these times. However, my next flight a few days later provided such a marked contrast that it helped me see a larger picture.

On this second occasion, the three-hour flight was slightly delayed because of weather problems. However, we soon boarded the plane, and everybody took their seats. We were all ready to leave the gate when the captain announced that there would be a delay because the tower at the destination would not give him permission to land.

Such an announcement hardly pleased the passengers that were cooped up in the plane. Everyone started to get a bit edgy with the news and the prospect of spending an hour or more at the gate.

But then something unexpected happened. It astonished me.

A Commanding Presence Reassures

As I looked down the aisle, I saw the figure of the captain. He was slowly making his way to the back of the plane explaining to everyone what was happening. He would stop and answer any questions and reassure everyone that he was doing his best to get this plane in the air. He was clearly in charge.

After returning to the cockpit, everyone waited. The pilot then made another announcement that the plane would be even further delayed. For a second time, he went down the aisle answering questions and reassuring passengers. The atmosphere aboard the plane was calm. People were not upset or angry. The captain’s prompt actions and commanding presence put them all at ease.

Later the captain made an announcement that by law everyone had to leave the cabin and stretch their legs, which everyone considered absurd. He apologized for the inconvenience yet firmly insisted that all comply. Everyone left without problems or complaint.

Finally, we took off, and the plane landed without incident. As I was leaving the plane, I could not resist asking one of the stewardesses if the captain’s going down the aisle was airline policy. She replied that it was not, but it was the way this particular captain operated. “Everyone likes to work with him. We love him,” she concluded.

A Tale of Two Flights

The contrast between the two incidents could not be more glaring. Here were two crisis situations that demanded leadership. In the first instance, no one seemed to care that all protocol was being followed. In the second case, everyone felt reassured that the situation was under control. The first flight had a pilot; the second had a captain.

The captain’s job is not merely to fly the plane. His role is to coordinate and harmonize the flight, dealing with whatever problems might arise, and deliver his passengers safely to the destination. The captain must connect with those under him and reassure them.

Searching for Captains

I cannot help but think that society is missing many captains today. So many go about the business of piloting and doing what is technically correct. They stay in their cockpits, so to speak, performing the task at hand. They do not go the extra mile to reassure those desperately looking for direction. Too few want to assume the responsibility of showing themselves in authority—for fear of offending others by asking people to do what they might not want to do.

We need captains everywhere today. They are sadly lacking in the family, schools, industry, politics, and religion. This is largely because people do not have a proper notion of what captains are. They think authority consists only in ordering people to do things. They do not realize it also involves unifying, reassuring and harmonizing.

Saint Thomas Aquinas defines authority as an animating and ordering intelligence, the vis regitiva that overcomes the resistance of the individual tendencies in men, organically directing and coordinating many wills toward the common good.

Thus, captains respect order and do not violate the rules, however difficult or absurd such rules might appear. Captains do not pander to those under them to please them. They do not make grand promises yet fail to mention the sacrifices needed to get the job done. Captains recognize that people need direction and act accordingly.

Above all, captains need to connect with those working with them to distil the best from them. Contrary to our egalitarian times, captains are not just “ordinary guys.” They need to appear as key representative figures, visibly and reassuringly, so as to secure the cooperation and confidence of those under them. Captains selflessly dedicate themselves to defending the common good to the point that they sacrifice themselves for, and serve, those whom they command.

Indeed, in our confusing and chaotic times, we do not need technocrats, economists, and politicians to craft their complex programs to solve our problems. We need to ask: Where are the nation’s captains?

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (April 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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1 reply to this post
  1. What a great article, John. I’ve worked in varied engineering disciplines in electronics for the past 25 years. Your descriptions of leaders is spot on. The leader doesn’t have to be a senior manager to lead. This is especially true in effective development teams. The differences is leadership are often the difference between success and failure.

    I think Admiral Rickover’s comment below is especially true for our government at state and federal level.

    “A manager must instill in his people an attitude of personal responsibility for seeing a job properly accomplished. Unfortunately, this seems to be declining, particularly in large organizations where responsibility is broadly distributed. To complaints of a job poorly done, one often hears the excuse, ‘I am not responsible.’ I believe that is literally correct. The man who takes such a stand in fact is not responsible; he is irresponsible.”

    Adm. Hyman G. Rickover 1982

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