Experience Means Nothing – Judgement is Everything

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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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By | 2017-05-18T15:30:02+00:00 May 30th, 2010|General Leadership, Opinion, Politics + Government|8 Comments

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  • Mario,

    Thanks for another great, thought-provoking post.

    While leadership is filled with all kinds of challenges, this is one of the most difficult to address. Since experience most often informs and guides judgement, how do we avoid falling into comfort, complacency and overconfidence in decisionmaking. This is particularly important in times of crisis where we often don't have time to consider a wide range of options outside of our sphere of experience. This is where education and training can play an important role. However, even with this, it is impossible to anticipate every outcome.

    One of the age old questions of leadership is how do we recognize when to use our experience where we need to and abandon it when we don't?

  • You've probably seen it, but Nova did a fantastic investigation of the crash on Tenerife (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/planecrash/). The chain of events was chilling to watch because the end result was avoidable in every way.

    I suspect it's why so many are frustrated by the events in the Gulf. Based on what we know now, it's clear that any of several steps could have prevented the current disaster completely. When something happens that's literally a fluke, we're still dismayed, but acknowledge that sometimes bad things happen outside our control.

    When those bad things happen after poor decisions, we're angry because it didn't need to happen. That reaction is understandable, but saying the president needs to act faster or do more (whatever that means) makes a faulty assumption that he has access to a solution he's choosing not to share.

    I'm afraid your hope of keeping politics out of the current situation will be dashed before long. Mid-term elections make this the perfect platform for politicians to demonstrate their "commitment" to the greater good and their "willingness" to take on big business.

  • Britt, you're an excellent writer and thinker. Thanks for the response. I have no illusions that politics will stay out completely, I just hope they stay off the oil field. Using my clearest crystal ball, I'm writing for the record that for every decision made (or not) that the investigation will uncover as "causal" – there will be some mid-grade engineer or tool pusher issuing strong and clear warnings to management: there always is. What I hope is that leaders collide with these people and judgement wins every time.

  • Voytec Wacowski

    Respectfully but VERY loudly disagree – especially with using a juxtaposition of two selected aircraft catastrophes as examples.

    Experience is nothing? – "…That is, of course, crap…" , to quote the author. There is 32 years of collective EXPERIENCE between two incidents – one can't compare the training levels of captains Sullenberger and Van Zanten. In those 32 years 2,626 has died in 7,388 civil aviation accidents (data: Aircraft Crashes Record Office
    Geneva – Switzerland) . That collective experience was used in developing better training systems, and technology in aviation and increasing safety of flying.

    "…At the end of the day, judgement beats experience every time…" – another completely false juxtaposition. Judgement is a derivative of experience – judgement without experience is just gambling and counting on luck.

    The author is right saying "…Not a soul on the earth has any experience capping a mile-deep oil well…" That is tragic. Pilots in modern aviation train on simulators ad nauseam to get a least a minimum experience necessary to make better judgement in case of trouble.

    Thw question is what oil industry learned in last 30 years , when it comes to fighting oil spills. Almost NOTHING – Watch a video on Rachel Maddow Show: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/vp/37408577%

    At the end there is NOTHING to lead about fighting oil spills – what is needed is a well trained, well equipped professional team who can plug it. No amount of leadership will stop the shit backing up from your toilet at home… you just need a plumber. Leadership was needed at the time of legislating that plumbers are not needed because it was too expensive to keep them just in case…

  • Voytec – Thanks for your…spirited comments on my post. You are right – there were 32 years of collective experience between the two incidents. Though at the time of Van Zantens incident, the whole "no takeoff without clearance" rule was pretty well set in stone. So my point that his experience told him he shouldn't but he blew it on a judgement call is still valid (at least I think so, anyway).

    You are also completely correct in that judgement IS a derivative of experience. But experience is also a rotten teacher and experience with success can cloud (or trick) judgement. i.e. I have never been in a car wreck so my experience teaches me that I don't need to wear a seat belt. My judgment makes a different decision.

    As far as leading the spill response or not? well….just give me the number of the "well trained, well equipped professional team who can plug it." and I'll send them down there myself and delete my post immediately.



  • I agree. We over-emphasize experience to much. If you think about it, one person with experience represents a sample size of one. We'd never approve a new drug with a sample size of one. We wouldn't even take the study seriously.

  • Ken Beck