For any of us who fly on a regular basis or have friends and family who do, the pictures of the ill-fated Asiana Airline Boeing 777 crash landing at San Francisco airport were terrifying. But even worse have been the news stories emerging about the co-pilot-in-training, who reportedly had only 43 hours of experience in the 777. He was supposed to be assisted by a more senior pilot (called a deputy pilot) who had over three thousand hours on the 777, another captain and a first officer.
Obviously, there is much we don’t know yet about why the plane crashed – whether human error or mechanical error – but it does beg some important leadership questions for all us to consider.
1. When is a leader ready to take the helm? In this case, there were 307 passengers and crew on the airplane when a decision was made to place pilot-in-training, Lee Gang Guk, in charge of landing the airplane. Even though it was apparently his ninth flight in a 777, was he competent to land an unfamiliar craft at a relatively unfamiliar airport? Do we ask ourselves the same questions when we put a leader in charge of a group of people? Do we assess the possible risks involved – to safety, results, morale? Very often we assume that an individual is ready for leadership because we’ve hired him/her to be one. This tragedy should remind us that simply having the title, or being the designated leader, does not make a person competent to do the job.
2. When do we empower an employee? In the case of the Asiana flight, it seems that Lee Gang Guk had been empowered to make all the decisions relative to landing the plane. In other words, from what we know to date, he was an empowered employee. We often hear the word – empowered – used a lot in association with teams and engagement, as if everyone should be empowered. But as we always say, you only empower someone who is highly competent and highly committed. In this case, the pilot-in-training was not ready to be empowered because he was not competent. As leaders, we must remember to move from Involvement – to Engagement – to Empowerment in a linear fashion based on an individual’s demonstrated competency. Premature empowerment can have catastrophic results as we’ve seen here.
3. What does supervision need to look like? I’m sure you’ve asked the question, just like I’ve been asking – so where were the deputy or supervising captain, the other captain and the first officer? The plane was coming in for a landing so they must have been sitting down somewhere, like all the rest of the passengers. And if someone is in-training, shouldn’t it be like when we took driver’s education? I remember my driver’s education teacher had a brake on his side of the car, just in case we messed up and missed a stop sign or started to turn into oncoming traffic. When they show the seconds ticking by on the news, shouldn’t some pilot have intervened to rescue the flight? This is such a good example for supervisors of the importance of their role in an organization. It also shows how supervision is not a “dump and run” responsibility. Supervision means watching, monitoring, talking through, coaching, correcting and communicating.
4. What decision making process was used? According to the news reports, there were only 3 seconds before the crash when the pilot requested to abort the flight and try again. In hindsight, too little, too late. As a South Korean official said, “We cannot conclude the accident was caused by a pilot mistake. Pinpointing an exact cause of the crash will take months or years.” Yet, the decision making process must play a critical role in determining responsibility. According to one expert, there was a point in the trajectory toward the airport, when the pilot made a decision that put all the controls in manual mode. At that point, the airplane lost altitude and slowed down significantly. If recovery had occurred at that point, would it have made a difference? Isn’t the same true in organizations when we see indicators that the organization is in trouble (poor morale, low retention, poor quality, irate customers) and fail to take appropriate action? We have learned much from the decision making mistakes of The Challenger, the Everest Climb, The Columbia and others. This tragedy will be less of a tragedy if we can all learn from the decisions that were – or weren’t – made.
Current events always provide a backdrop for us to think about how we might react in a similar situation or examine the strengths and weaknesses in our own organizations or leadership models. Let’s use this one as well, do to address these four important questions.
Make sure to pick up Deborah’s recent book, Survival of the Hive: 7 Leadership Lessons from a Beehive, which takes the lid off a beehive and provides a fun, relevant and reflective look at effective leadership through the eyes of one of the world’s most industrious creatures, the honeybee. Deborah Mackin and Matthew Harrington use the bee colony and specifically Zync, the queen-in-waiting, as an entertaining fable to help leaders build accountability, communicate more effectively, engage and motivate the workforce, and sustain loyalty and commitment.