“Put the oxygen mask on yourself first, and then place it on your child. If you’re traveling with more than one child, start with the one with the greatest earning potential.”
By now, most of us have seen those videos of funny flight attendants trying to get otherwise inattentive passengers to listen to their safety announcements.
The quote above comes from the flight attendant credited with starting it all. Martha Cobbs, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant began ad-libbing to her safety announcement, and it went viral.
Southwest Airlines management saw the value of her act and encouraged attendants to use humor in their safety briefings. And according to Southwest Airline, those humorous briefings are worth $140 million annually in customer loyalty.
A small and funny example of bottom-up change.
What’s funny to me, though, is that we talk about bottom-up change as if it were the exception and not the rule. The fact is, most change—social, political, organizational—is bottom up.
Trying to influence when you are not the most powerful person is the rule, not the exception. It’s simple math. There are many, many more employees in an organization than there are managers. Millions more ordinary citizens than elected officials.
But it’s easy to forget in the face of global events that make us feel powerless, thwarted, angry, and hopeless.
It’s easy to forget that the history of humanity is as much the story of ordinary people as much as it is the story of kings, titans, generals, and conquering armies. It’s the story of Irene Sendlers, Malala Yousafzais, and Tarana Burkes as much as it is a story of Alexander the Great or Kublai Khan.
And it’s easy to forget that we have bucket loads of skills using “power up,” having grown up navigating bullies in the neighborhood and pecking orders on the playground; bargaining with parents over bedtimes and siblings over toy ownership; accommodating teachers who didn’t like us, and collaborating with difficult coworkers and peers. Not to mention for some of us, having to contend with the forces of discrimination and oppression. In other words, we know, through our own experience that…
Less power does not equal less influence
In an organizational context, this is referred to as “being political”—navigating organizational dynamics using means other than direct authority. A workaround. When you cannot get from A to B direct, you need to figure out another way.
But what’s the first step?
Instead of asking, what can I do? … Ask yourself, what do I have to offer?
“What can I do?” spins our wheels. We contemplate the state of the world, our team, our organization, our community … and “What can I do?” makes that “I” feel really small in the face of it all.
But “What do I have to offer?” is ingenious. As pointed out to me by my friend and colleague, Lesli Mones, “What do I have to offer” elevates our power by elevating our importance. Because to answer that question, you have to inventory and cultivate all the powers you have.
It might be something you’re really good at, a passion that gives you meaning and makes you self-confident.
Maybe it’s your wisdom, born of life experience, or perhaps your ability to create and nurture friendships and networks.
Maybe you’ve got the gift of social boldness and energy, and can easily rouse others to action.
What are some examples of people asking themselves, “What do I have to offer?” during the pandemic?
- Restaurants started delivering free meals to frontline workers, school children, the elderly, and others in need.
- Taxis volunteered to take people to the hospital.
- Regular citizens volunteered to deliver medicine and other necessary supplies.
- Ordinary people created shared Google spreadsheets of mutual aid groups.
But beyond these great actions, asking “what do I have to offer?” just feels better. It’s more empowering. And it forces you to appreciate, take seriously, and put to use all the great gifts and powers you possess.
Thank you for reading.