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Crisis management: fly the plane or fix the problem, don’t do both

Learning to either manage the crisis or run the company, but not do both, is a hard lesson for most executives, as they want to do it all. Executives achieve their position through hard work, overcoming extreme obstacles, success, confidence, and leadership. It becomes difficult to let go of the organizational reigns to focus on the crisis. Likewise, it is just as difficult to let others manage a crisis while they focus on the organization. This post is a reflection of a number of executive crisis management trainings I facilitated where the executive (e.g., CEO, business unit president, segment leader) wanted to ‘fly the plane’ and ‘fix the problem.’

I was facilitating an executive crisis exercise with a fortune 200 company. The scenario was a gas explosion at one of their data centers, which impacted people and technology. Of course, concern for people was the primary objective. Continuing business was also top of mind. Based on the scenario the company would be unable to service customers, which could mean they would need government support. Their brand, reputation, and existence were being tested. The CEO made it clear that he needed to be front and center on this one. We all agreed. Using Lootok’s command and control framework, we began solving the problem.

Midway though the situation, I asked who was flying the plane; that is, who’s running the business if the CEO was completely focusing on the crisis. There was a long awkward pause. Then the CEO said, “me, of course.” He made clear to all of us that it was his responsibility to ensure the company continues to operate successful. He stated, “I am not concerned about my ability to perform both roles.” I mentioned I did not think it was a good idea. Focus and concentration are needed. Stress of the crisis will quickly wear him down. I mentioned that he might exhibit cognitive lock-in, groupthink, task saturation, etc. The team was already exhibiting garden path effect, which means they were continuing down the path they originally establish and unwilling to course correct. A crisis like this one isn’t going to be over in a few days.

I continued to educate the team that under severe stress or fear, our ability to intake and interpret information falls drastically. Message retention can fall by 80%. Some of the ways people cope with this is by reducing complexity of the information heard; acting on their pre-existing beliefs; seeking analogies in the current situation to problems they already understand; and eventually, blocking out new information when it becomes too much to process.

Bottom line – this CEO wanted to completely control everything. He was not going to let go of the plane or the opportunity to be the face of the company during this difficult period.

When we are training our executives, we need to bring case studies to light that illustrate the need to focus and not to do both – fly plane and fix problem. Leadership is a shared and distributed function. Leaders must learn to rely on their lines of operations to obtain, assess, and distribute an uninterrupted flow of information.

The driving philosophy behind this statement is that in a crisis, one is either “flying the airplane or fixing the problem” or rather, running the business or solving the crisis - but not both. Even in the case of a very small and lean business, another individual should be delegated as soon as possible to manage one task or the other. Organizations must train their leadership teams to know their individual roles, how to transition, and when to recognize pending leadership breakdown. This helps to avoid uncertainty about who will lead and execute certain actions.

As part of any crisis management training or exercising, executives should discuss situations when decision must be made. Understanding this ‘who’s in charge’ process, transition, tempo, and criteria are needed to adjust leadership’s roles and responsibilities based on the context. It is commonly referred to as situational leadership. Here are a few variables to consider when working with executives [mnemonic CVTT … cut]: 1. Context 2. Variables 3. Threats 4. Tempo.

Many times in Lootok’s executive crisis management training, we dissect an airline case study we call Miracle on the Hudson versus Eastern Airlines.

Miracle on Hudson vs. Eastern Airlines Case Study

You can either solve the problem or fly the plane. Corporate culture needs to promote problem escalation. Leaders are not perfect or immortal. Let’s look at two situations with dramatically different outcomes because the leadership.

Miracle on the Hudson

Good decision makers use their experience to recognize an effective option and evaluate it through mental simulation. Miracle on the Hudson On January 15, 2009, at 3:25 p.m., US Airways Flight 1529, an Airbus 320, took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York on its way to Charlotte, North Carolina. Two minutes after the takeoff the airplane hit a flock of Canada geese and lost thrust in both of its engines. The captain, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger ill, and the first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, safely landed the airplane in the Hudson River at 3:31 p.m. All 150 passengers plus the five-crew members were rescued. Media reports and interviews with Sullenberger allow us to describe his decision strategy after he lost thrust in both engines. Option 1 was to return to LaGuardia Airport. Sullenberger’s initial message to the air traffic controllers was “Hit birds. We lost thrust in both engines. We’re turning back toward LaGuardia.” But he quickly realized that the airplane was too low and slow to make it back, so he abandoned that plan. Option 2 was to find another airport. Sullenberger was headed west and thought he might be able to reach Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. The air traffic controllers quickly gained permission for him to land at Teterboro, but Sullenberger judged he wouldn’t get that far. “We can’t do it,” he stated. “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.” Option 3 was to land in the Hudson River.

Chesley Sullenberger, who has degrees in psychology from the Air Force Academy and Purdue University, spent practically his whole life preparing for the five-minute crucible that was US Airways Flight 1549.

He got his pilot’s license at 14, flew fighter jets in the Air Force, investigated air disasters, mastered glider flying and even studied the psychology of how cockpit crews behave in a crisis. When the ultimate test came on a descent over the Hudson River, he spoke into the intercom only once and gave perhaps the most terrifying instruction a pilot can give — “Brace for impact” — with remarkable calm.

As the 150 passengers of Flight 1549 marveled at their hero pilot’s skill and cool head, they learned what friends and relatives of Sullenberger say they have known all along. “This is someone who has not just spent his life flying airplanes, but has actually dug very deeply into what makes these things work, and I think he proved it,” said Robert Bea, a civil engineer who has known Sullenberger.

Miracle on the Hudson

Eastern Airlines Flight 401

On December 29th, 1972, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 took off from JFK at 9:20PM to Miami International. The aircraft had been flying for only four months, one week and two days.

Maintenance had been regular and frequent, with the current flight log noting only minor problems. The engineer and second officer for flight 401 was 51 year-old Donald Louis Repo who had been employed by Eastern Airlines for 25 years. Co-pilot Bert Stockstill, thirty nine years old and a former Air Force flier had even more flying time. The flight had been normal until the final approach into Miami.

At 11:34 p.m. Loft spoke into the radio. Loft referred to a light on the instrument panel that indicates that the nose gear is down and locked in position for landing. The light should have been on at this point, but remained unlit. This failure had two possible explanations: either the gear wasn’t down, or the light wasn’t working. The pilots recycled the gear. When the light still did not come on, they aborted the landing to examine the situation.

The tower instructed the aircraft to pull out of its decent, climb to two thousand feet, and then make a U-turn and flight west over the darkness of the Everglades. The captain instructed Stockstill to put the aircraft on autopilot while the cockpit crew removed the light assembly and the flight engineer was dispatched into the to visually check if the gear was down. While doing that, they did not realize that the autopilot had been accidentally disengaged.

The plane began a descent so gradual it could not be perceived by the crew. When the altitude warning C-note chime located under the engineer’s workstation went off, no one noticed. The engineer had gone below, and there was no indication by the pilot’s voices that they heard the chime. At the moment when Stockstill’s radio altimeter beeped, the plane was passing through one hundred and one feet, the plane was dropping at fifty feet per second. The cockpit crew heard the warning, but it was too late.

Federal Aviation Administration Lessons Learned

Eastern 401 crash Video Reenactment


Lootok is an industry leader in crisis management and business continuity. Contact us to assess, enhance, or manage your crisis management and/or business continuity program(s).

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