Leading from the Exit Row
Thomas Thompson
April 12, 2022
min read

You shuffle along the airplane aisle, matching the seat on your screen with the numbers under the overhead bins.  You come to your row and, lo and behold, you are in an Exit Row.  Extra legroom and no one in front of you leaning back?  Score!

As you buckle in, the Flight Attendant come up to you and asks you this question:

“In the event of an emergency, are you able and willing to open the exit hatch?”

“Sure,” you think.  I can open a door.  So you nod.

“I am sorry, I need verbal confirmation that you are able and willing to open the exit hatch.”

This time, sobered a little, you let your yes be yes and she moves on to question the passenger next to you.

How have you handled sitting in the Exit Row?

The first few times I found myself in this situation, I took it less than seriously.  I joked with my fellow seatmates how we were the “Captains of the Exit Row.”  The order of rank on the plane went: Pilot, Co-pilot, Flight Attendant, Exit Row Captains. We were large and in charge.

But I made a critical error in thinking.

The Exit Row seat is NOT about authority.  It is about responsibility.   It is the weight you carry that, in the event of a catastrophic event, you will forgo your own safety and focus on opening the door for everyone.  Whatever privilege the authority of this seat gives, it pales next to the responsibility of carrying out this call.

Why the dramatic "verbal confirmation" from the Flight Attendant?

Opening an unhinged 50 pound door in the middle of panic and extreme circumstances is a huge undertaking.  The Flight Attendant needs to know you are up to the task. The secret behind the verbal confirmation is twofold:  The attendant needs proof that you are able to comprehend verbal commands in English, and that you are able to speak and relay instructions to others.  Without that Yes, you get bumped and others take your place.

What leadership weight have you given your verbal confirmation to?

Leadership is never about authority or privilege.  It is about the responsibility that. when needed, you will rise to the occasion and lead to serve others. And when you give your verbal yes, you are accepting the weight of that responsibility.

A few years ago, a client of mine took on the lead role in an organization.  He had never sought that role, but as the former leader was transitioning out, the Board of Directors asked him to step in.  A few months later, another coach and I were meeting with him, and we could tell he was still grappling with the transition to his new role. At one point, he said, “I never chose this job.”  The other coach, a wiser mentor of mine, spoke up.  “You never get to say that again.  You may not have planned to take that role, but you were asked by the Board to take it and you said yes.  Your yes means that you DID choose this role.  So now you have to figure out how to lead going forward.”

Great words.  The kick in the pants my client needed to shift from what happened to what’s next.  That’s the power of verbal confirmation.  Of declaring your yes to the responsibility.

Where are you facing the weight of leadership right now?  A responsibility that you may not want, but is being offered/asked of you?  Have you given a sober-minded and fully verbal “Yes”?  There are other leaders willing and able to switch seats with you and lead in your place.  But until you get clear about what you are saying yes to, you will struggle to lead.

I often practice verbal confirmation in my life.  When considering a role or client, I take a moment to consider the weight of accepting that responsibility.  Then I give my verbal yes.  “By accepting this role, I am choosing _______________________.  I am saying YES to this.”

Saying yes out loud gives you great clarity when it comes time to say no.  

Consider an area of leadership you are facing. What would it look like for you to name the weight of responsibility you are being asked to take, then out loud, give a verbal yes. It may help to write it down somewhere, so when the crisis hits, or the Exit Door has to be opened, you can remind yourself, "I said YES to this."

I'd love to talk with you more about this. Shoot me an email and let's start giving your Yes and your No power today.

I founded Thompson Leadership to come alongside leaders like you. Together, we will unpack your unique leadership, unearth your biggest challenge, and create an action plan to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
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