Leadership Lessons from the San Francisco Plane Crash

By Scott Eblin

July 18, 2013

My friend and Georgetown leadership coaching colleague, Bob Wohlsen, sent a thought provoking email to his friends and clients last week on the recent crash of an Asiana 777 jet liner at San Francisco International Airport. In it, Bob raises a lot of important questions for leaders and their colleagues to consider. With his permission, I’m sharing his thoughts on the Next Level Blog.  You can learn more about Bob and his work with leaders as well as contact him through his LinkedIn profile.

A few Saturdays ago, I was happily engaged around our house in the Bay Area, when I received an AP alert on my iPhone. I was stunned to read Plane Crash at SFO.  I hurried to our deck, where Miriam and I often enjoy watching the huge jet liners turn, line up with the runway, and descend to the airport. I was horrified to see a cloud of black smoke drifting over San Francisco Bay. As I soon learned, Asiana Flight 214 had clipped the seawall at the end of the runway and crashed. It was a tough afternoon to know of the pain and suffering going on nearby.

So, while the extremely capable NTSB teams are combing the wreckage, analyzing the data, and interviewing the crew to determine what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again, I’ve been musing about what leadership lessons we can learn from the tragedy. Here’s what I’ve learned, based on the information I’ve obtained from news reports and the NTSB briefings:

The fact is that a safe, sturdy plane crashed with 4 experienced pilots on board on a clear day. Why did this happen? How could this have happened? Here is my hunch:

And I have these unanswered questions in my mind. Did the team organize effectively – delineate clear roles and responsibilities, establish a working arrangement including a communications plan, feedback plan, and decision making plan? Was there a clearly designated and recognized leader of the team? Did the team members know each others’ preferences for communication and feedback or the individual needs of each other?

The NTSB investigation will provide answers to these questions.

What are the takeaways for us, as leaders, and our teams?

What additional takeaways do you see?  What learning is there for you and your teams in this accident?  What can you do to improve your team’s performance, and reduce the risk of accidents and failures?

By Scott Eblin

July 18, 2013