The Challenge of Leadership

Motor racing has fascinated me since boyhood. (Many years ago I even raced an Alfa Romeo myself – albeit not very successfully!)

In particular I’ve followed Formula One – especially the longest lasting F1 team, Ferrari, which I’ve followed since the days of Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx.

Chris Amon(NZL) Ferrari 312. Dutch Grand Prix, Zandvoort, Holland, 23 June 1968.

Being one of the “Tifosi” meant that I’ve despaired about the team’s misfortunes over the last few years. Since the glory days of Michael Schumacher, with team bosses Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and the South African designer Rory Byrne, Ferrari was on a downward spiral, with their last World Championship more than a decade ago, in 2007 with Kimi Raikkonen.

Since the advent of the hybrid era, Ferrari seemed to be an also-ran. Until 2018, when all of a sudden they had a competitive car and looked like a winning team.

For a while.

Then the wheels came off and Sebastian Vettel looked startled and out-of-sorts, making all sorts of (for him) silly mistakes. The team’s strategists seemed to fumble from one blunder to the next and Ferrari eventually had to settle for second best.

How are Ferrari’s F1 woes relevant to aviation? The answer is: Leadership.

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the “Miracle on the Hudson” landing – where Captain Sully Sullenberger’s leadership skills were as much on display as were his flying skills – the captain’s duty to build a team around him is pertinent.

15 January 2009

On reading Will Buxton’s opinion piece about Mauritzio Arrivabene’s demise, one has to draw some parallels to the airline captain’s responsibility for ensuring a successful and safe team.

“Arrivabene’s rule by fear fractured his team and ultimately failed his employers” rings true to many failed leadership issues in aviation as well.

What is it that sets good leaders apart from the also-rans?

There are many academic definitions and as many popular quotes from people like Richard Branson, Alan Mulally (Boeing GM for the B777 project and later CEO of the Ford Company) among others.

On analysis, two words pop up repeatedly: Trust and Respect. Two attributes which Ferrari’s Arrivabene could not claim – and it cost him the prized position after four seasons.

Speaking about Just Culture Job Brüggen, safety officer at LVNL and co-chair of the Eurocontrol Safety Team put it this way:

Everyone wants to be good,
but if people feel the atmosphere could be tending to “blame and shame”,
they become less interested in being good –
they just want to look good.

When people simply cover their own backsides and avoid taking responsibility – look to the leader for the reason.

“The walls, both physical and metaphorical, were quick to go up around the team. But far from creating a safe environment in which the once mighty outfit could rebuild, it appeared that what was being built was a system built on the fear of failure”. This was what Arrivabene did to the once proud Prancing Horse.

The lesson here is simple. To lead implies a two-way agreement – someone leads and others follow. But if the “leader” fails to gain the followers’ trust and respect, he or she can lead all they want – no one will follow.

Is it any surprise that some “leaders” sooner or later find themselves out on their own, without any actual support? Arrivabene learnt this lesson the hard way.

Hopefully Mattia Binotto, the new Team Principal, will know that leadership demands much more than the position and the authority. It demands an attitude – something special, which allows people to follow the vision of their leader.

Hopefully the Scuderia will benefit and become winners again.







Hindsight – The most exact science..

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Kegworth air disaster – a crash which has since become a standard in CRM classes.

The story is well-known: Blade failure on the number one engine resulted in the pilots mis-diagnosing the problem, shutting down the number two engine instead. This led to the disastrous outcome, costing 47 of the 118 passengers their lives, with 74 people suffering serious injuries. 

Airways Magazine today published an Op-Ed about it, which singles out one of the major lessons learnt – because of the subsequent research into effective brace positions, safety cards and crew briefings, major changes were made to the way passengers are taught to brace for impact. (Click on the link).

However, in total more than thirty-one recommendations were made in the accident report, many of them then became binding for manufacturers and operators. 

While many factors were at play here – and we use many of them in our initial courses as examples of absent CRM – to me one of the most interesting factors is the (then) new CFM-56 engine. These engines were reasonably new in 1989, only being operated on a commercial jet for the first time in 1981. The B737-400 was also a new aircraft, first operated in September 1988. The accident airframe, G-OBME, was only delivered to British Midlands in October 1988 – two-and-a-half months before the crash. 

The CFM-56 used on the -400 was an uprated version of the engine used on the earlier -300 variant. (The -300 was launched in 1984). 

To uprate the -300 engine from 20 000 pounds of thrust to the 23 500 required for the slightly larger -400 required only an electronic chip to increase the N1 (RPM). However, this modification was never tested in the air, only on a test rig, before being certified for use on the -400. Unknown to the manufacturer and operators, blade stall became a problem above 10 000 feet and this was what eventually resulted in the blade failure on the accident aircraft.

The problem was easily rectified, and the CFM-56 is now probably one of the most reliable engines ever built. 

However, it took an accident to lead to this improvement.

Too often this is the case. We learn from each accident and try to understand all the factors involved – in an attempt to avoid similar accidents occurring. But all to soon, it would appear, we become complacent about those lessons learnt – and only yet another crash leads us to question whether we’ve actually learnt anything at all!

Debris from the crashed B738-Max being recovered.

Take, for instance, the recent crash of a LionAir B738-Max – to my mind also caused by a design change which caught everyone by surprise. (Although the previous crew to fly the doomed aircraft experienced the same problem, they had the resilience to recover the aircraft by reverting to good old manual flight). However, without the knowledge about the potential problems associated with the MCAS system, the accident crew were clearly confused by the malfunctioning automation and were unable to regain control. 

To my knowledge the British Midland crews had been operating B737-200 aircraft before, and only attended classroom differences training before flying the -400. As someone who has flown many of the variants, ranging from the 737-Basic to the B738, I know that the only way to convert from the -200 to the -400 would be proper simulator training – they are quite different aircraft. This lack of training could well have been another link in the Kegworth accident chain.

And now pilots were once again expected to convert to a new B737 model with a little classroom video and a CBT test. 

It would appear to me that we’re not inventing new ways to crash, we’re simply repeating the same mistakes over again.

In the same breath I must add that we have certainly come a long way since the Kegworth disaster. The recently published accident statistics bear testimony to the fact we are on a sustained downward trend, and flying is in fact safer than ever.

It’s just such a pity that we always have to remember accidents like Kegworth, to remind ourselves of the potential for disaster.