Why do airlines say you must put your own oxygen mask on first?

Those of us who have made regular flights on airlines are very familiar with the safety instructions delivered by the senior cabin attendant that includes the bit about “in the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead compartments”. Should that happen, we are instructed to do something that, on the surface, sounds quite selfish, but isn’t.

We are told that, should the oxygen masks be released from the overhead compartments, we must put our own mask on first and then help children and others.

At first that sounds awfully selfish – typical of the “me first” mindset. But there is much wisdom in that instruction. If you fail to put on your own mask first, it is highly likely that you will succumb to the lack of oxygen and then become a victim yourself. You will then definitely not be able to help anyone else but will instead need help yourself.

And when it comes to mask wearing amid the “Corona chaos”, the need to put your own mask on first is even more relevant.

If you are a competent, responsible person – a business leader, a life partner or a parent, you will take care of yourself SO THAT you are in as best a position as possible to help others – your life partner, your child, any other person, company or cause.

So, if you’re in a long term relationship, if you’re a parent or a leader of a few or many people, you have a responsibility to those people who live with you, who work for you, who look to you, who rely on you, to practise safe health protocols. This is called leading by example where you can say to others, “Do as I do,” not, “Do as I say.” The days of “Do as I say” leaders who don’t follow the very rules they impose on others are over.

Viruses have no respect for your position. Boris Johnson will verify this if you’re not sure about this!

But “putting your own mask on first” means a lot more than literally putting a mask on.

It means doing key things now that will ensure that the present and the future for yourself, for those you love and for those you lead, will be something to look forward to.

First get the basics in place – the things we all know to do. Practise appropriate physical isolation and regularly sanitise your hands until we’re told there’s no longer a need to do so. Lower your risk profile by wearing a mask and gloves should you need to undertake an essential journey to buy food or medication. At the shops, pharmacy or doctor’s rooms, maintain an appropriate distance between yourself and others.

But, for leaders, “putting your own mask on first” means a lot more. As a leader, you have a responsibility and an obligation to those you lead to find the meaning in the mess, to make sense of what is happening so that you are better able to guide, support, counsel, encourage and inspire your people to stick together, to push on regardless, to stay positive, to maintain productivity or get back to it as fast as possible.

It is you to whom people will look before embracing either hope or fear. Hope and fear are the two dominating emotions people are currently experiencing so it’s important for you to understand what hope and fear are: hope is a belief in a better future and fear is a belief in a worse future.

Are you in a position to instil in your people a belief in a better future? Or are you going to leave them to their own devices because you. Just. Don’t. Know?

One way of “knowing” is by maintaining strategic mental momentum. This doesn’t mean you remain married to the strategies that may have been working for you before the chaos. It means you make a conscious (yes, conscious) decision to open your mind to new ways of seeing things, new ways of listening to others and new ways of thinking about things.

Here’s one new way of thinking just to get you going!

Remember the book Good to Great by Jim Collins? It was published in 2001 and at that time, was hailed as the new management bible. In the book, Collins addressed CEOs directly saying things like, “You are a bus driver. The bus, your company, is at a standstill, and it’s your job to get it going. You have to decide where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and who’s going with you.”

Playing with the “bus” metaphor, it was Collins who also made popular the point about “getting the right people on the bus”. Remember that?

CEOs loved it! They were running around quoting Collins at every meeting they chaired.

Well, that was all great … for 2001. Now, almost 20 years later, the metaphor about the CEO driving the bus is completely meaningless. Why? Because, for that metaphor to work, it assumes that the bus has a road to ride on. And the reality we face today is that there. Is. No. More. Road.

Yes, the “road” as we knew it has come to an end. And ahead of us is uncharted jungle territory – difficult to penetrate, see through and walk through. It’s dangerous – you don’t know what’s lying in wait for you or what pitfalls await you.

So everyone who has been sitting in the comfortable, air conditioned bus – the bus driver included – has to get out of the bus and start making their way through the jungle, And here’s the fun part – you have no map, no compass, no GPS and no clue as to where you’re going.

And now, the challenge most executives face is that they’re all highly trained bus drivers and haven’t a clue how to lead their people through the jungle. If you’re a business leader still relying on your bus driver skills to lead your company, division or team, understand this. Your bus driving skills are now completely useless. You now have to learn jungle skills that will help you find your way through this jungle we now all face.

Having taught jungle skills for the past decade, I can assure you, if you are terrified at the prospect, you’re not alone. Many executives are privately battling with this. But the sooner you accept that your bus driving days are over, the better.

So stop trying to drive your bus through the jungle. Get out of it, accept your new vulnerability and start making your way through the jungle, learning as you go. You’re going to make mistakes (remember the bit about vulnerability?) and, when you do, be the first to own your mistake and correct it. Your people will love you for it and trust you more because they will see your honesty and authenticity. And, while you can’t offer them a blueprint as to the way forward, your honesty and authenticity is what’s going to keep them following you.   

Alan Hosking is the Publisher of HR Future magazine, www.hrfuture.net and @HRFuturemag. He is a recognised authority on leadership skills for the future and teaches both experienced business leaders and Millennial managers how to lead with integrity, purpose and agility. In 2018, he was named by US-based web site Disruptordaily.com as one of the Top 25 Future of Work Influencers to Follow on Twitter“.

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