What I Learned about Leadership from Being Stuck in an Airport
By Derek Penwell
As I sit in the Dallas airport, 25 hours into my version of the airport story from hell, I cannot help but think about the way something as simple as a flat tire on an airplane can put a serious kink a person’s faith. Apparently—and I did not know this—the FAA doesn’t consider Fix-a-Flat a suitable repair for a damaged airplane tire … at least that’s what the kind woman at the American Airlines gate told me when I walked up after seven hours to make suggestions about how we might possibly, “if-it’s-all-the-same-to-you,” move this along.
I’m going with a group to Mexico to do work on water purification, which is neither here nor there, except to draw attention to the competing impulses of a group that both urgently wants to get down to Mexico to do what we’ve been planning to do, while still remaining committed to the prospect of sidestepping the temptation to act like turds. They’re actually doing great, but nobody could blame them if they did spike the sphygmomanometer.
The thing about being stuck in airport is that not only is it exhausting staring at the same patterns in the industrial carpet for hours on end, but the uncertainty can tax even the strongest spiritual constitution. What lies ahead is uncertain, with just enough hope to keep you from wandering away from the gate and down to the bar to lay in liquid stores for the duration. And so you sit—miserable to be where you are, but with not information to provide you with the incentive to go somewhere else.
Which misery sounds like a lot of congregations I know. Life in declining congregations often mirrors the nightmare of being stuck in an airport. They don’t know what the future holds, and nobody can give them enough information to act on, so they sit on their hands, vacillating between the anger that nobody knows anything and the fear that whatever it is that nobody knows will materialize without warning and cause the whole journey to veer off into the ditch.
But the other thing I learned about being stuck in an airport is that good leadership can be the difference between communal thriving in a less than optimal situation and a spiraling descent into a band of mutant circus geeks on the prowl in search of the heads of airline personnel.
Here’s what I learned about leadership in a declining congregation from being stuck in an airport for 26 (now) hours:
- Being calm is contagious. If the person in charge is wound too tight, everyone gets anxious. Tranquility sells.
- Anxiety over things you can’t change isn’t merely a waste of time; it also robs you of the joy of the adventure. You can expend a great deal of energy worrying about things you have no control over, which leads to anxiety (see above). Anxiety causes the mind to race, limiting options and impeding creativity. But just as importantly, it blinds you to the fact that adventures are adventures precisely because of the challenges … not despite them.
- Being a jerk to people who can’t do anything about the situation doesn’t change anything but the atmosphere. Not only does being an overbearing fussbudget fail as a strategy for making things better, it also helps to create overbearing fussbudgets of others (see above). Remember: You have to live in the climate you create.
- Laughing makes everything a little less crappy, and can help bind a community together. In addition to the fact that laughter helps to relieve the tension of a difficult journey (see above), it also helps to draw people together. Any adventure is not only better with companions, it also makes survival that much more likely … just ask Frodo Baggins, or Harry Potter, or Jesus—although survival in Jesus’ case apparently required stretching out on a stone slab for a couple of days—which is sort of like airport furniture, if you think about it.
Being a part of a congregation in decline (or stuck in an airport) isn’t, generally speaking, high up on anybody’s list of things to do before they die. But if you stick around long enough, chances are pretty good you’re going to find yourself staring adventure in the face. You might just as well do it with a little grace and style.
Your band of traveling companions will thank you.