A Mid-Air Emergency: Five Characteristics of High Performing Teams

by | Jul 18, 2017


It started like any other flight. The memorized announcements, beverage service, and a few peanuts. With my head buried in my laptop, I became aware of a commotion of two rows in front of me. A woman asked for help for her husband. The announcement over the speaker system was for doctors or nurses on board. Across the aisle from the husband needing help was a retired paramedic wearing an Orlando firefighter tee shirt. He was also an instructor for paramedics.

The problem unfolded quickly. The man had a heart attack. Soon, he was lying in the aisle of the plane surrounded by a team using AED machines effectively: two doctors, two nurses and the paramedic who was organizing the workflow. For a half-hour, they worked like a well-oiled team to save this man’s life, but they weren’t a well-oiled team. They didn’t even know each other’s names. What caused them to function as a team so quickly and how can you use it?

Call to action. Any team needs a call to action. In this case, the call was clear and quick. A life needed saving. While your team may not be dealing with life and death situations, their call to action should be compelling enough to inspire interest and action. If not, why bother?

Trust. This ad hoc team had no time for forming, storming and norming. They only had a one-word description of their credentials: nurse, doctor, paramedic. And that’s all they needed. They trusted each other’s skills. Yes, this was an emergency. Without creating an emergency, how do you create an atmosphere of trust? Any good team must trust others to uphold their role and be good at what they do.

Persistence. Rarely does anything go as planned? A good team continues its mission in spite of the challenges. Teamwork is like water flowing around a rock in the middle of the stream. The effort flows around the challenge and keeps going. Similarly, this team worked for 30 minutes to revive the man lying in the aisle. They never gave up and were administering an injection up until the moment we touched down in Las Vegas. They were committed to a positive outcome. Is your team just as committed?

Humility. Teams gel around the leader. In our case, the retired paramedic expertly called out instructions to coordinate the team. The doctor knelt next to my chair rummaging through the medical kit for anything they could use: syringes, tape, medication. The doctor and he worked hand-in-hand until the other paramedics met the plane at the gate. And then there was humility. As the sick man was taken off the plane, the paramedic knelt in the aisle and crossed himself. Then he crawled along the floor to pick up the debris and any sharp objects that may have been left behind. He literally crawled along the floor to do what needed to be done. Are you, as the leader this humble? Will you do – do you do anything necessary to make the mission successful?

Appreciation. Once the heart attack patient was transported away, the plane erupted into applause. We had our very own heroes. As we clapped our appreciation, they didn’t seem to hear it. They did what needed to be done. Still, I believe they heard the gratitude. Are you expressing your appreciation for a job well done even when it’s the job that needs to be done? Gratitude matters. Say thank you; applaud; dance a jig. Do whatever is needed to be appreciative.

I wish I could say that the heart attack victim survived but I fear that he didn’t. I suspect that we saw a life transition to the next one in the aisle of that plane. Personally, I’ve seen enough death over the last few months to last quite a while. But this time, I had the privilege of observing a high-performing team in action. I’m grateful for their service and I’m grateful for the example they set for the rest of us. Knowing how to do first aid/CPR can stand you in good stead if something like this happens when you are out and about, you can help save someone’s life. Checking out courses from places such as Coast2Coast ottawa can train you in first aid practices so you can feel confident in helping someone who is having a medical emergency. Check your local area to see where they do one and hopefully you’ll be able to save a life.

paulprescott72 / 123RF Stock Photo


  1. Lucy Merklee

    Wow! Incredible! Your blog always contains such great information to inspire me to focus on continuous improvement, happiness, gratitude and being in the present moment! Thank you! We’re all in this together.

    • Shelley Row

      Thank you, Lucy. I’m pleased that you find value in this work. This last flight was an inspiration to be happy and grateful – as you said.



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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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