Mr. Bhushan Singh

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Why do Airplanes Crash?

Posted by Bhushan Singh on Tuesday, 31 May 2016 in General

On 6th August 1987, Korean Air 801 was approaching Guam for a nighttime landing. One of the instruments on the ground that usually guides pilots to the runway for an Instrument Landing was not working (the glideslope) that day. This is typically not a problem as pilots then used what was known as a non-precision approach.

On approaching however, the captain saw a flicker on the instrument and despite the copilot and flight engineer indicating that it was a false signal and that the airport was not in sight; the captain exercised his authority and proceeded to fly the aircraft, eventually resulting in the plane flying into a hill and killing 228 of the 258 persons on board.

There have been several other air disasters that have occurred due to the inability of the cockpit crew to question the decision of the pilot even when it was clearly wrong. Arising out of the 1977 air disaster in Tenerife in Spain, the National Transportation Safety Board in the USA began formally developing Crew Resource Management (CRM). While retaining a command hierarchy, the concept was intended to foster a less authoritarian cockpit culture, where co-pilots were encouraged to question captains if they observed them making mistakes. CRM focuses mainly on interpersonal communication, decision-making and leadership in the cockpit. The results have been spectacular, with a huge improvement in air safety.

So what does this have to do with business? How is your executive team run? Do you have the power to respectfully raise your concerns with your CEO or Chairman? Or is your company’s culture one of “Do as you’re told?” Many say that they have an open-door policy or that you can raise your concerns freely; but do they always practice what they say in the heat of the moment? Does objection result in increased tension and reduction in respect? Human beings can be quite irrational at times.


 airplane crash 02


Is there a place for autocratic leadership in an organisation? In 2006 Ford was in a bad state. The world had given up on Ford and it was losing $1400 per vehicle sold. No one wanted to take the helm of this failing company.

Then came the most authoritarian CEO that Ford had ever seen, Alan Mulally. He was a newcomer to the auto industry and forced the design teams to radically shift their thinking. He decided to get rid of Land Rover, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Volvo. He did not rely on sales figures or statistics to make his decisions. Every Thursday morning he held a meeting in what Ford called their Thunderbird room. During that meeting there was a lot of name bashing as he attempted to shame the non-performers. He called his chair the “pilot’s seat”. He wanted results. Am I painting a hint of narcissism here?

Under Mulally’s leadership however Ford’s market capitalization increased a whopping 370%. Suddenly, no one was muttering about narcissism or any other mean names again.

Is there a place for this type of leadership in a company? Obviously there are instances when someone has to “take the bull by the horns.” But one must be careful as well because there are an equal number of failures to match all the success stories. We have also seen immense corporate scandals from “big name” companies when no one had the authority to challenge the CEO for ethically questionable decisions. The point here is that strategy can be a subjective decision, but should ethics also not be questioned? In the case of the airplane crash above, a more forceful intervention by the other flight deck crew may have saved 228 lives. In the case of Ford, the autocratic leadership had to do with strategy in a company that was already at the bottom of the pile. When Steve Jobs took over Apple, the company was floundering and he used his legendary tyrannical style to produce measurable results.

You would also recall the Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, Lehman Brothers, Satyam and Bernie Madoff accounting scandals. Obviously these are ethically and legally questionable “strategies” that were carefully conceived and executed. How is it that no one saw it fit to raise the red flag until it was too late? Were these cases of blind faith or malicious compliance?

Take another case of Air France 447 on June 1st 2009; when the Captain left the cockpit for a short while. During that time a problem arose with the airspeed indicator and the aircraft went into an aerodynamic stall. When the Captain returned to the cockpit they failed to communicate effectively in assessing the aircraft’s situation, which caused the crew to employ the wrong corrective measures with disastrous consequences.

Leadership and communication styles are very important. Each has its strengths and weaknesses but it is important to have your pulse on the organisation. Without having an understanding of the organization, the possibility of miscommunication and misunderstanding now becomes a reality. Thus the “water cooler” conversations, though not the official communication channel, now becomes the most trusted one and contributes organizational inertia. In such an instance how are the organisational goals perceived and internalized by staff?


 airplane crash 03


As far as strategy is concerned, it can always be debated. However I am of the opinion that if you believe that ethics and legality are being compromised you should indicate your disapproval. I’m am not suggesting insubordination or stepping out of line; I reiterate once again to respectfully raise your concern in the appropriate forum. Your concern can be heeded or ignored- after all, the CEO is still in charge.


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