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Sh&t Happens: Are You Prepared?

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Sh&t Happens: Are You Prepared?

On April 9, 2017 a passenger named David Dao on a United Airlines flight was forcibly removed from his seat after refusing to vacate when asked after he was bumped from the flight to make room for United Airlines crew members that needed to travel.  What ensued was nothing short of a tornado, leaving no one unscathed in its tracks – bad press, bad customer service, poor listening skills, lack of sympathy, lack of respect, all leading to further fallout on all sides of the aisle.

In today’s world of technology and social media, the video was posted within minutes and seen by thousands within hours. Everyone dusted off their soapboxes that they put away after the Presidential election and chimed in with their opinions – opinions on how United was terrible for removing him, opinions on how the passenger was in the wrong for refusing the order, opinions on how it should have never happened in the first place.

Yet, what we often forget in our unconscious efforts towards living a normal life is that things rarely go as planned and things happen all the time when we least expect them and often are out of our control.  This, in essence, is our control variable. However, there are a myriad of things we can control as we react and respond. We can prepare an infinite number of options. We can have strategies in place to navigate the challenges we anticipate to face daily.

But…what do you do when all of your preparation doesn’t prepare you? What if the skills and solutions that will matter most aren’t quantifiable or measurable? What if it was human skills that the United Airlines responding staff members lacked?

In the Marine Corps there is a saying used often within the spouse network that is just as important to understand as the rules a Marine learns in the halls of Parris Island: Semper Gumby. Most are familiar with the Corps’ motto “Semper Fidelis” which is a Latin phrase that translates to “Always Faithful”.  I’m sure you can picture the Silent Drill Platoon in their Dress Blues twirling their rifles in the iconic Marine Corps recruiting commercials! See here if you have never witnessed this:

Semper Gumby means exactly what it sounds like- “Always Flexible” We learn quickly as members of the military or spouses of service members that nothing ever goes as planned. You may have one plan of how your day is going to go, but the military has another. You could be eating breakfast at your house in North Carolina on Monday and be in Twenty Nine Palms, California in a tent on Friday. It’s important to have an option A, an option B, and options C-G if we’re being honest.

However, at the end of the day your ability to adapt to the instability of the situation will be based on the skills you’ve been learning your entire life: human skills. If you can’t handle the unknown, you will not be successful in the military as a member and/or a family member. As a Marine Corps Family Readiness Volunteer, the advice I gave to others was to give yourself three key tests: how well you can adapt to the situation, how developed your character is to be able to handle the situation, and how quickly you can assume humility and put your pride aside.

Many people were surprised to learn that United Airlines was actually legally allowed to remove the passenger from the plane for not complying with flight crew instructions. Dao was violating federal law and technically could have been charged.  Yet, just last week United settled with him privately.  The corporation adapted to the situation at hand. Despite the fact that the officers who removed Dao from the plane were legally allowed to do what they did, the manner in which they handled it was not publicly applauded.

The general consensus was that there was no reason Dao should have come off that flight by way of being dragged and with injuries that drew blood. While Dao expressed a great deal of resistance, his defiance was not sadistic in nature, unlike others who are removed from flights who physically want to harm those around them. In the moment, the United staff did not empathetically adapt to what was happening and they chose to give in to authoritative reasoning. As a result, the airline had to do damage control and ultimately choose not to press charges and instead settle with Dao in the aftermath to save their brand in a time period where airline travel is highly scrutinized due to numerous incidents over the last few years that have received a lot of press such as the  Muslim woman who’s request for an unopened can of soda was denied despite the fact other passengers had unopened cans.

The second test in a situation of crisis is character. As Captain Sully Sullenberger of the famous water landing in the Hudson River says, “be a fully integrated human.” The more you are able to understand others and relate to what they may be going through and how they operate, the better you will be able to manage them, especially in a time of high stress. United Airlines staff had a choice when dealing with the passenger: to remain calm and reason with the passenger or emotionally enforce their authority and choose to give in to hostility.

If you don’t work to develop the character of your team, you won’t be able to adapt to the situation as needed. What United staff missed is that the passenger was being thrust into a situation he didn’t choose and didn’t understand. They did understand because they deal with these situations every day. Instead of trying to help Dao understand and working with him to feel better due to the fact that his plans were just ruined, they chose to hide behind the laws that protected them in order to get what they wanted and go on with their day.

As a military spouse, it is your job to help other family members understand why your service member may have to do something unexpected or why they aren’t welcome at a certain event. Spouses that get upset when their military member has to stay late at work and miss dinner choose not to understand that their spouse is serving a purpose to a critical mission and staying later because his or her skills are needed.  Semper Gumby. How often do you put your own needs aside, become a fully integrated human, and serve those around you without expecting reciprocation?

The final and probably the most difficult test is to understand when to throw in the towel – you at some point have to practice humility. In our post-recession world there is little room for error when it comes to our stakeholders (business or personal) looking to us to be successful. It is imperative to know when to put ego and pride aside in order to work together to find a solution. We can’t always choose to look the other way when we don’t want to handle the uncomfortable or take the less than ideal route.

 A few weeks prior to the Dao incident, United had an incident with a few young women who were not let on a flight because they were wearing leggings. The airline claimed that because they were traveling as a relative of an employee, they had to abide by the dress code. Leggings have become a staple of American fashion in the last few years and why United Airlines chose that moment to enforce the dress code is uncertain. Instead of apologizing for the incident, the airline defended their dress code and received a ton of backlash. Fast-forward to the Dao incident a few weeks later – they were not taking any chances.

In sum, Semper Gumby applies to our life daily. When we wake up and start a new 24 hours, we must make the three choices to adapt to the unexpected, be a fully integrated human and develop our character, and put our own needs and pride aside to serve others. We can prepare for the worst and expect the best, but we must be aware that the line to success is rarely straight. We can obtain all the education offered, but human skills are not learned in a classroom. When your preparation fails you, your flexibility and ability to improvise is what will keep you grounded.

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