Pilots at the controlsMention the name, “Chesley Sullenberger,” and images of competence and heroic calm under enourmous pressure come to mind, don’t they? Sullenberger, who expertly piloted the stricken US Airways Flight 1549 to a 155-life-saving landing on the Hudson river will long be remembered as the very picture of experience. He was a flight instructor, he developed vital flight safety programs, and had amassed an enormous number of safe flying hours in his logbook. The passengers abourd flight 1549 couldn’t have asked for a better pilot that morning in January of last year. The long-experienced and competent Sullenberger was responsible for the greatest feat in the history of commercial aviation.

But what comes to mind when you hear, “Jacob Van Zanten?” I mean, besides the word “Who?” He too was an instructor pilot. He too was a leader in safety management and systems, and he also had an enormous amount of safe flying hours under his belt.  Like “Sully”, Van Zanten also inspired admiration and respect from his peers and was, quite literally, the model pilot of his airline. The passengers aboard KLM Flight 4805 couldn’t have asked for a better pilot either; but despite the similarities between the two men, Van Zanten would pilot his passengers to the worst airline disaster in aviation history.  While there is speculation as to Van Zanten’s reasons for throttling his aircraft down the foggy runway at Tenerrife airport without takeoff clearance, there is no dispute that he alone made the decision to go from safely parked on the taxiway, to hurling into blinding fog, killing the 248 people on his plane and another 335 on Pan Am 1736.  With decades of experience and training telling him “no,” Van Zanten’s judgment failed him (and 582 others) and he made a mistake a rookie wouldn’t have dared to; why?

“Experience is a rotten teacher.” I heard Tom Peters say once.  “Experience is 5,000 reasons why something won’t work.”  Tom’s point in business was that it is experience that often foils a leader’s judgement.  Secure with years of trying stuff that didn’t work before, some people make the mistake that “not working before” is the same thing as “won’t work this time.”  That is, of course, crap.  Likewise, as Van Zantan learned just seconds before he perished, previous success doesn’t equal future success.  At the end of the day, judgement beats experience every time.

I was reminded of this while reading an absolutely brilliant post by Britt Raybould. In Why President’s Can’t Fix Disasters, Raybould asserts that though leaders may be extraordinary people, they are still people (not superhuman) and to assume that they are leaving all judgement and wisdom at the door because “they” haven’t stopped the oil yet is flawed logic.  What we need our leaders to do about the oil spill is to listen to things from all sides and exercise judgment – calm, sound judgment.  Not a soul on the earth has any experience capping a mile-deep oil well.  Nothing in our leaders experience will help them.  We’re going to have to hope that they are smart and not unnerved by the ridiculous pressures that come from outside the problem.  We’re going to have to hope that what the public thinks about what they are doing to work the problem doesn’t change how they actually work the problem.  The situation itself is pressure enough.

Some speculate that Van Zanten was actually victim of his own success and that it was pressure to maintain his excellent on-time record (a very big deal at KLM) that had him on the edge of his throttle, clouding his judgment.  Others speculate his ego – fed by his perfect record – led him to believe he knew best (or should). Personally, I hope everyone working the oil spill doesn’t buy into the thought that they should be doing a better job or paying attention to how it makes them “look.”  I hope the politics, for once, play no part at all.  The last thing we need is to throttle down this particular runway into blinding fog because something gets in the way of our judgment.

disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

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