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A lesson in humility

A few days ago, when I flew home to Germany for Christmas, I was on a Lufthansa flight from L.A. to Munich. The flight itself was luckily rather uneventful and I was getting very excited to see my family and friends all over Germany over the next few weeks. Especially, since I now live in New Zealand where Christmas means having a BBQ on the beach or hanging out at a friend’s bach during this high-summer period. Having grown up near the Alps, my understanding of Christmas is very(!) different: A very festive Christmas Eve celebration when it is pitch-black and freezing outside, mulled wine, and long walks in the snow...

I am digressing. Let me get back to that flight.

Towards the end of it, we were invited to do some duty-free shopping and after I had selected an item from the catalogue, the flight attendant asked me to finalize the purchase in the back of the plane. I followed her into the galley and it turned out that she and her colleague had difficulty locating my selection on the cart, so I thought I ask for some water, while I waited for them to complete their search. Now, the thing about me and water is that I like to drink it hot ever since first living in Asia because I feel the warmer temperature soothes my body much more than coldish liquid. Since I didn’t want to interrupt the two flight attendants looking for my duty-free purchase, I turned around to look for another person standing in the galley in Lufthansa uniform. There were a couple, so I picked one and asked “may I have a glass of hot water?” He looked back at me and nodded, yet, his facial expression seemed to hint at a bit of confusion or reluctance, but I thought it had to do with the fact that I had asked for “hot,” since I get some reaction of disbelief about this request a lot. He asked one of the other attendants something and it sounded as if it had to do with the right glasses or cups and I was surprised that he wouldn’t know. One of the flight attendants working on my missing item was giggling a bit, but I thought it had to do with whatever he and his colleague were doing at the cart. The gentleman whom I had asked for the water, now had a cup in his hand and started moving to the hot-water dispenser. That’s when the female purser at the duty-free cart just couldn’t restrain herself anymore and burst out in a very sweet way “Do you know who this is? … it is our co-pilot!”

What a moment. Everybody in the kitchen was laughing (except for the co-pilot) and although one of the flight attendants now wanted to take the cup out of his hand, the co-pilot insisted on finishing “his job.” He handed me the filled cup with a smile and I thanked him for it. Of course, I did apologize and told him that I was obviously not savvy enough to tell the difference between the white uniform shirts (everyone in the galley was in shirts, no one wore a blazer.) He then showed me that the actual number of stripes on the shoulders were the differentiator, but again, he did it in a very kind and relaxed way and I was truly touched by his humility and his willingness to let me keep face by not pointing out my ignorance when I first asked him for that cup of hot water. Had it been up to him, I am positive that I would still not know that it had been poured by the co-pilot.

Now, translate that incident to any C-Level person in your organization. Imagine a situation where a new employee runs into one of your organization’s leaders in the cafeteria and for whatever reason accidentally confuses him or her with wait staff and asks them for a refill of some food or drink item or for clean dishes or utensils. How might he or she react?

What if you were that leader, how would you react?

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