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When to Step in to Take Back Control: 4 Red Lights

6 Mins read

The more we are able to delegate, the more we lift others up and the more equipped they become to lead. The challenge for a Jumpseat Leader is to know when to step in again when things start to go awry. How do we know when that time has come? How do we intervene in a way that doesn’t burst the balloon of confidence of the other person, which could take weeks or months to build back up? When we feel something is really important, human nature will naturally drive us to step in and intervene sooner rather than later whenever we see a problem or threat. But if we want to harness the full collective genius of our team and give them the opportunity to lead, we need to build the muscle that enables us to let go of that urge to control.

We should certainly train our people in the skills they need. And yet the journey of our own lives has taught us that we learn through experience, which inevitably means making some mistakes along the way. We all likely have memories of when others had faith in our ability and gave us the opportunity to step up, and of how exhilarating, fulfilling, and energizing that felt. They’ve also been there to help pick us up and move forward when we’ve taken a fall.

While professional pilots train extensively in simulators to learn how to land aircraft in all kinds of poor weather, there is no substitute for the adrenaline and focus that occur when doing it for real. When you’re in the air, it’s not possible to hit pause and reset if you get it wrong. As captain, it can be very tempting to take over the controls from a junior pilot, for example when the weather conditions are really challenging, or when the pilot is not flying as well as you could. But if you do step in, that pilot will never build the experience they need to be a captain in the future when there is no longer anyone else to take over the controls.

I found myself faced with that judgement with a junior pilot – let’s call him John – who was flying our large passenger jet as we started our approach into Gander International Airport. The weather was quite poor, with blustery winds making the approach more challenging than usual. This is quite common for Gander, perched as it is on the large island of Newfoundland, off the east coast of mainland Canada.

John began well, then, a few miles out from the runway, we started to see what are known as the precision approach path indicators, or PAPIs. These are a set of four lights to the side of the runway, which can independently shine red or white, to help pilots recognize if they are approaching at the correct angle to land safely. The aim is to be able to see two red lights and two white. If the pilot sees three white lights and one red, they’re too high. Three red lights and only one white, they’re too low. Four reds, and they are way too low and could risk hitting the ground or an obstacle before the runway.

Initially, I could see two red lights and two white – all good. But then John allowed the aircraft to descend more quickly than it should, and the PAPIs changed to three red and one white – not so good. I called out to John that he was low and needed to take action. John acknowledged but didn’t take the action needed, which would have been to increase power from the engines.

While concerned, I wanted John to have the opportunity to correct his error before I intervened. A few seconds later, the PAPIs changed to four red lights. Although still several hundred feet above the ground, we were now getting dangerously low to make a safe landing. I alerted John to apply more power. He didn’t. Even then, I didn’t take over the controls. Instead, I nudged the engine throttles forward a little, calling it out as I did so. We quickly regained the correct approach angle, and John completed a smooth landing.

There were several points on this approach where I could have taken over the flying and chose not to. I knew that John had to learn. By taking over early, I would have popped John’s balloon of confidence. It was only when I judged we were about to reach the point beyond which I couldn’t recover the situation safely that I stepped in. I needed to make the shift from my role as a great follower, supporting John, to my broader role of captain, with the added responsibility of ensuring the safety of everyone on board.

John learned from the experience and the debrief afterwards. Later in his career, he went on to become a successful captain and instructor pilot, helping junior pilots to develop their skills, in just the same way as I had helped him to develop his.

We can all probably think of times when we’ve stepped in early and taken over from someone on our team, justifying it as the easiest, quickest, or least risky thing to do. Like when we write the email to an important client ourselves rather than having the account manager write a draft and working with them to refine it. We might also recall moments when we’ve had control taken from us, and how frustrated and undermined we’ve felt. Like when we were learning to drive, and the instructor took over when the traffic got busy. And we may be fortunate and have memories of when others had faith in our ability and gave us the opportunity to grow, and of how good that felt. Like the first time we closed a big deal on our own.

When the actions of others, despite their best intentions, have the potential to affect our life, livelihood, status, or reputation, it takes courage to wait before we intervene. It takes courage to wait until we see our equivalent of four red lights. When we do find that courage, that’s when true growth in our team occurs and we plant the seed for others to step up and become leaders too.

Judging when to take back control can be difficult, so here are some helpful suggestions to reflect on before stepping in and taking back control:

Recognize that the urge to step in is going to happen

It’s human nature to want to control those things that are really important to us. When we acknowledge this, we can prepare for it.

Question whether the urge is driven by love or fear

When we recognize the urge to step in, we should ask ourselves if it comes from our ego or+ vanity rising up, or whether by stepping in we will genuinely be in service of others.

Consider whether it is time to choose the many over the one

Do the needs of our team, company, or cause warrant bursting the balloon of the person we’re about to take over from? Once that balloon is popped, it can take a long time to recover, if it can recover at all.

Know your decision point

When will you get to your four red lights? How far can you allow the situation to continue before it goes beyond your ability to salvage it?

Choose the smallest intervention

When we reach our four-red-lights decision point, it doesn’t necessarily mean we need to completely take over. Perhaps a small prompt or nudge is all that’s required.

Decide whether the outcome really matters

Sometimes, when we take a moment to pause and reflect on the bigger picture, it gives us the chance to re-evaluate how important a moment is. Will it matter in a day, a week, or six months from now? Is it worth the trade-off, given the potential positive effect on the individual if we choose not to intervene?

An extract from Leading From The Jumpseat: How to Create Extraordinary Opportunities by Handing Over Control by Peter Docker.

Peter Docker is passionate about enabling people to unlock their natural talents and teaches leadership that is focused on commitment and human connection. This approach harnesses the collective wisdom of teams to generate extraordinary outcomes. Peter’s commercial and industry experience has been at the most senior levels in sectors across more than 90 countries, including oil & gas, construction, mining, pharmaceuticals, banking, television, film, media, manufacturing and services. His clients include Google, Four Seasons Hotels, Accenture, American Express, ASOS, EY, NBC Universal and over 100 more. Having served for 25 years as a Royal Air Force senior officer, Peter has been a Force Commander during combat flying operations and has seen service across the globe. Peter’s latest bookLeading from The Jumpseat: How to Create Extraordinary Opportunities by Handing Over Control, was published by Why Not Press.

Control stock photo by Olivier Le Moal/Shutterstock

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