What I Learned from Crashing a Jet: Part 5 – Taking Off the Mask to Connect

People Wearing Masks

In the months that followed my accident, I felt many emotions. I am unsure I could explicitly identify the feelings I was experiencing at the time, but I now know it was shame, dread, awkwardness, and self-consciousness. Looking back, I was forced to push through these sentiments, which was fortunate for my growth. But it was only later in my career that the benefits came to fruition by bolstering connections with my teammates, helping others overcome their challenges, and creating a sense of humility.

We are social creatures and fear being ostracized by our peer groups.  I was no different.  The only way I could move past my experience was to prove I could complete flight training, which meant I had to overcome the mixture of feelings and step into the light.  My first experience dealing with it was a winging ceremony for the pilots in my carrier qualification class.  It was the same celebration I would have been part of had I qualified. Afterward, my wife told me several people commented on my attendance and asked how I was really doing. They were all extremely kind. However, the one comment that has stayed with me is, “I couldn’t be here if I were in his shoes.” Why do we feel this way?

Taking those first steps after a public incident makes you feel naked.  You feel very vulnerable like everyone is looking at you.  You can hear the supposed voices in their head, “Oh, that is the guy that crashed the jet.” Or, “I can’t believe they let him continue training.” I assumed I was being judged negatively and filtered everything through that lens.

For years, I didn’t talk much about my mishap. I am sure people wondered what my call sign, Laz, meant or where it came from. I would share an abbreviated version of the tale if they dared to ask. However, it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to lead sailors that I started to come out of my shell and share the details. I developed a keen sense of empathy for others’ human side and the challenges they face. Sometimes, I saw others wrestling with their missteps, which pained me. I was sure the feelings they were experiencing were tearing them up. I would pull them aside and show them a picture of my mishap aircraft. Then, I would share my story, how I owned my mistake, and show them the light at the end of their tunnel. I encouraged them to share their story with others and saw a weight being lifted from their shoulders.

I found that sharing my story permitted me and my teammates to tear off our masks. These disguises that we often wear to hide our true selves. We conceal our past secrets in hopes that others see someone who is perfect and has done everything right. Whatever “right” may be. As we drag our veils around, they take a great deal of energy to maintain, which leaves us feeling drained and inauthentic. We seek other opportunities to bolster our false image instead of making genuine connections with those around us.

Years later, when I had an opportunity to mentor young newly commissioned officers and officer candidates, I shared my mishap story in hopes of shattering a myth. When I was younger, I believed that successful leaders were perfect; they knew all the answers and had figured it out. I assumed I just needed to do the same to be successful.  But here is the truth.  There isn’t a leader out there who hasn’t made a mistake in their career at some point. The question is, are they vulnerable enough to discuss it?

The healing process comes from sharing our vulnerabilities with others. The bonus is that revealing our flaws draws us closer to them. As Brené Brown said, “Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.” When leaders confess their mistakes, it proves they are not perfect and demonstrates that they are not a flawless measuring stick – they have faults, too. It permits their teammates to dedicate more energy toward performing their best because they are not held back by the fear of not measuring up to the boss.

Lifting our masks also creates a sense of humility – a term derived from the Latin word for ‘ground’ or ‘soil.’ We are less likely to elevate ourselves when we admit our past blemishes. We understand that we erred in the past and will likely err in the future. We are all human. We all come from the same soil. This common foundation permits us to lead with clarity and value the contribution of everyone on our team, which creates a stronger sense of connection and trust.

I recently had a friend reach out and remind me of our interaction after his aviation mishap. Honestly, I completely forgot that he had an accident until he reminded me. While the trauma we experience from our incidents may be at the forefront of our minds, it will fade into the background for others. The assumption that others are judging us based on these experiences is faulty. They are too preoccupied with their thoughts. This reality offers us an opportunity – a clean slate. We can release ourselves from the fear that has a hold of us and move forward with building sincere connections with others in our lives based on honesty, humility, and trust.

Sharing our past mistakes with others is a challenging endeavor. The practice goes against our instincts of self-preservation by exposing our shortcomings. However, taking that leap releases us from carrying our cloaks in hopes that others will see a positive and faultless image. Furthermore, it frees us to be more authentic and develop meaningful connections with others. What masks are you hiding behind? How are they holding you back? How could you build more meaningful relationships? What are you learning about yourself?

P.S. – Work with a coach if you want to unveil your mask and have more confidence in your relationships. Find out more right here to resurrect your potential.

Photo by Edoardo Maresca on Unsplash