Over this past weekend I saw a young man named Zachary Drum stand at the front of a packed room and command the attention of every person in it. At 21 years old, Zachary is not tall or physically imposing. He doesn’t have the booming voice of an evangelical preacher and he never gestures wildly in an attempt to draw attention to himself. No, what this young man brought to the audience at the James West Army Reserve Center in Lakeland, Florida, was a confident composure, an undeniable command of the subject matter at hand, and a willingness to listen.
We could all learn a thing or two from Zachary. In time I have no doubt that we will, too. He is an unusually and encouragingly capable fellow who has already embarked on a lifelong mission to fulfill his goal of becoming a leader of consequence.
Zachary Drum is a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. There is nothing average or pedestrian about Mr. Drum. In fact, even in the rarified strata of his Naval Academy peers, he is a standout. He’s risen through the ranks to a position of respect that puts more than 700 men and women under his charge.
Drum is one of the top 20 midshipmen at the academy. Yet, with all that accomplishment behind him already, it was only last week, as he enters his fourth year at the academy that he put in his preferences for military service. His intent is to become a naval aviator.
As the program continued, I couldn’t help but wonder why aviators like Drum, or his U. S. Air Force Academy counterpart, Maj. Jennifer Chenowith (ret.), command such respect while their civilian brothers and sisters with wings so often illicit significantly less admirable reactions from the public. It occurs to me that the difference very well may be found in the presentation we make.
First impressions last. We would all do well to keep that in mind, regardless whether we have aspirations to fly for the military or in the civilian world. Those of us who choose to operate in the public arena can truly be thought of as two distinctly different people, the private individual and the public persona. This is true of anyone who steps into the spotlight, even briefly. Not recognizing that reality can imperil your cause, even if your intentions are good and your argument is sound.
The private individual has an enormous amount of latitude as it pertains to language and dress. The public persona does not.
I wonder what would happen if the next commercial flight out of O’Hare was staffed by pilots wearing Hawaiian shirts, flip-flops, and sporting three days of stubble? Can you imagine the reaction if they spoke using the vernacular almost exclusively, peppering expletives into their chatter for color here and there?
There is a reason the military has strict uniform standards. It is the same reason the airlines have similar requirements. A uniform appearance and presentation suggests a professional environment, where safety is a key factor. That consistent image allows the passengers sitting in the back of that pressurized aluminum tube to feel a reasonable sense of comfort as they prepare to hurtle into the sky at speeds and altitudes they find astounding.
It wouldn’t surprise me a bit, or cause one moment’s concern, to learn that a commercial pilot, or a military officer, was known to watch football on television while dressed down and slouching. They might even have a mustard stain on their T-shirt. It makes no difference to me. And it shouldn’t make a difference to you, either. That’s the private individual. They can slouch and swear and sit around in their underwear all they want.
Then again, when they step up to the podium to represent their airline, or their branch of the service, they should be dressed in a way that sends a clear message before they even open their mouths. Their appearance should say, “I’m a professional. The information I am about to share is accurate and truthful.” If they’re slipping into the cockpit to take the controls, their style of dress and demeanor says, “I belong up here. You can relax, I’ve got it all under control.” The result of making that first, instantaneous, positive impression makes all the difference in the world.
Those of us who step up to the microphone at public meetings, or slip into the office of local officials to argue the merits of our airports, might consider the same thing, and adopt the same practice. As a Floridian, I can completely understand the argument that an untucked shirt, shorts, and casual footwear is comfortable. That is my natural inclination, too. But whether I’m at a public meeting, keeping an appointment with a print reporter, or filling a segment on Fox News, I dress for the occasion. The way I look is a big part of my message in those circumstances, and I know it.
It is easier to maintain a positive image and promote our argument to a potentially unfriendly audience than it is to overcome the negative impression we can make by simply not taking the audience’s expectations seriously.
First impressions last a long, long time. So make an effort to be sure the first impressions you make are good ones. We’ll all win in the end.
Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to FlightMonkeys.com. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.