business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Talk about a meltdown in leadership.

That’s pretty much what happened Tuesday on Jet Blue Flight 191,traveling from New York to Las Vegas, when the pilot “began behaving erratically in the cockpit, and then, after being locked out of the cockpit by the airline’s co-pilot, ran through the cabin yelling about Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and al-Qaida,” according to the Washington Post story.

Now, the good news is that the story had a happy ending. It so happened that many of the passengers were men on their way to a security conference, and they were able to restrain the pilot. The co-pilot landed the plane safely in Amarillo, Texas. And the passengers have received “a refund for the one-way fare, a voucher for twice the value of their original ticket, and letters from the airline” as compensation. (Judge for yourself whether that is enough.)

But as the Washington Post writes this morning, “The airline’s response has gotten mixed reviews from fans and customers alike, with some cheering the passengers’ and crew’s swift actions while others questioned how much the airline was telling them. To some, JetBlue’s initial statements about a ‘medical situation’ didn’t seem to fit the stories trickling out about a pilot running up and down the aisles screaming that passengers should say their prayers ... Such a crisis is extremely difficult for any leader to manage in real-time, especially when the event involves what appears to be a mental condition that a company cannot, for obvious reasons, elaborate on publicly. JetBlue’s response was hardly pitch-perfect — the CEO, (David) Barger, seemed to try too hard to redirect his interview with Matt Lauer to the heroism of the passengers and the crew, while the very first thing he said probably should have been his sympathies for the passengers who went through the wrenching experience. And their biggest test is yet to come, as investigations begin taking place and as JetBlue’s leadership takes part in what is sure to be both an internal and external debate over mental health testing for pilots.”

In the end, it appears that Jet Blue may have a credibility problem - and maintaining credibility may be job one for every leader. If one appears out of touch with events, or trying to shift the blame or focus, or not in synch with one’s employees and customers, then you run the risk of losing credibility. (It could be argued that the CEO of a major US retailer/wholesaler is facing that problem to some degree, if the tone of some of the emails sent to MNB recently are to be believed.)

These kinds of challenges often face leaders - albeit not usually at 30,000 feet. But it strikes me that there is yet another challenge that leaders have to be trained to handle - the fact that so many of these events take place in the public eye. Video of the events on Jet Blue Flight 191 is all over the internet ... and so there is even less margin for error.

All Eye-Openers for leaders in any venue.
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