Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Key Leadership Skill?

Guest post by James Lawther :

On the 25th January 1990, Avianca flight 52 from Bogotá to New York crash-landed on the village of Cove Neck, Long Island, New York.

 Seconds before the crash all four of the plane’s engines stopped working.

·       There was nothing wrong with the plane

·       There was nothing wrong with the pilots

·       There was nothing wrong with airport

 The plane simply ran out of fuel.

73 people died.

How did they run out of fuel?
It was a miserable night, foggy and with terrible winds.  Planes were struggling to land all along the east coast.  The flight had been in three separate holding patterns circling New York for well over an hour when it was finally cleared for landing.

As the plane approached the airport the wind suddenly changed direction and it had to abort the landing and climb rapidly.  Air traffic control circled the plane back around, waiting for other planes to land before it could make a second approach.

6 minutes later the plane ran out of fuel and plunged into a hillside.

Why didn’t they land?
Plenty of other planes landed in the hour and twenty minutes between the Colombian plane arriving above New York and crashing into Long Island, and the plane was in constant contact with air traffic control so...

·       Why did they wait in the sky for over an hour?

·       Why weren’t they given priority landing?

·       Why didn’t they go to land at Philadelphia or Boston?

·       Why didn’t they spin back round immediately they had a failed landing?

How could such a disaster have happened? Didn’t the pilots know that the plane was running out of fuel?

Words from the past
The black box flight recorder caught every word on the plane.  The pilots knew full well they were going to run out of fuel, they were on the verge of panic.
The only surviving member of crew, one of the flight attendants, testified in the inquest after the crash afterwards that when she entered the cockpit to see how serious the situation was the co-pilot pointed at the fuel gauge and cut his throat with his finger.

The tragedy was simply a miscommunication.
The crew had been telling Air Traffic Control that they were running out of fuel.  But that is not new news for Air Traffic Control.  Every plane that lands after an intercontinental flight is running out of fuel.  It is more than unwise to try to land a plane that is weighed down with tanks full of flammable liquid.

The Colombians had simply been unable to explain exactly how dire their predicament was.

How could trained professionals miscommunicate so badly?
In the 1970’s the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede developed a way of looking at cultural differences.  He produced a set of dimensions to explain how cultures vary from one another.

One of his dimensions is the “power distance index”.  It measures how differential members of a society are to those in positions of power.

The US has a relatively low “power distance index” it is a culture of straight talkers.

The opposite, however, is true of Colombia.  Colombians are invariably polite and non confrontational to those they see as being in a position of power.  They keep their thoughts to themselves.

Whilst the message to Air Traffic Control from an American plane about to run out of fuel would have been short, sharp and very to the point a Colombian would put it very differently.

After the aborted landing the conversation between air traffic control and the plane was:

ATC:  I’m gonna bring you about 15 miles north east and turn you back onto the approach.  Is that OK with you and your fuel?

Plane:  I guess so.  Thank you very much.

They had 6 minutes of fuel left, yet they still said, “Thank you very much.”

The leadership lesson
Leadership may well be about vision and inspiration and charisma and motivation but at its heart leadership is about communication, and at least half of communication is about listening.

Particularly to the people who are keeping quiet.

About the author:
James Lawther knows little about leadership, but he is fascinated about the way organisations work, so he writes about employee engagement and process improvement instead at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I lived and worked in Latin America for almost 20 years. The consequences of the high power difference culture were numerous and frustrating. This posts helps to show that the consequences can also be very dangerous - even life threatening! Thanks so much for the encouragement to be aware and proactive with these cultural differences.