Walking Up the StairsCommencement Address - Little Rock, AR. Campus, Webster University This is a story about the importance of empowering others. John T. Quinlivan, a retired executive at Boeing Corporation, shared this wonderful story with me. It's a story about a simple act we all take for granted. A few years back John was the person in charge of delivering Boeing commercial jets to countries around the world. This particular delivery was to the nation of Kenya. The Boeing 767-400 plane landed at the Kenyatta International Airport with much fanfare and celebration.
The day began with great pomp and ceremony, as Boeing entertained airline executives and top government dignitaries with a demonstration flight in the new 767 over the beautiful landscape of Kenya. Later that day, the aerospace giant opened the airplane up for what is generally referred as static display, where people are invited to walk through the plane, sit on the seats, and get an up-close look of the plane.
More than two thousand Kenya Airways employees and invited VIPs showed up to get a glimpse of the country's new acquisition that afternoon. At the completion of the static display, the plane was cleaned and secured for the night. But then, the unaccepted happened, a group of children from a nearby orphanage showed up. they came to see the big bird that had landed near their home close to the airport. Despite protestation from the hosts, John Quinlivan insisted that they too should get a tour of the brand-new plane. When they finally made it on the tarmac, they stood transfixed at the bottom of the stairway looking up at the massive bird. From the top, John motioned to them to come up, but nobody responded to him. "They just stood there," John told me, and then he asked one of the Kenyan hosts to tell the children and adults who were with them in Swahili to walk up the stairs. again, there was no reaction.
It became clear to John that he had a small problem. The problem? The children and their handlers had never walked up stairs before. They didn't know how, and so with the help of the Boeing staff and Kenyan hosts, they assisted the children, as they made their way up to the plane. It took a while, but they finally made it to the top of the stairway and into the place. They stretched out on the large seats in first class, checked out the cockpit, sat in the pilot's seat, and looked in the restrooms!
At the end of the tour, it was a sight to see the kids attempting to walk down the stairway. A few found it more comforting and assuring to just sit on the steps, slid their way down as carefully as they could.
This is a story about a simple act that we take for granted. My friends, walking up stairs is enabling others to reach their goals. Walking up stairs is overcoming insurmountable odds and doing the impossible. When we walk up stairs, we are enabling others to participate in the American Dream. It begs the question: what stairs are you helping others to climb?
According to John, "the people of Kenya were thrilled to be a part of the Boeing 767-400 tour. But it was more than that. They were so proud of their new plane. You see, we must always remember the radical changes that products/services bring to people's lives and the transformational capacity to an organization or even to a nation and to its people." For John, it's about access, connectivity, opportunity, inclusion and education. These are defining attributes that are to be part of DNA of any organization.
Which begs the question: are you enabling these attributes in your organization?
John T. Quinlivan with Kenyan children at the airport