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Alaina Love
Leadership author

Alaina Love

Alaina Love is co-author, with Marc Cugnon, of The Purpose Linked Organization and co-founder of Purpose Linked Consulting.

The leader in 20J

Jasper Schuringa, the passenger who subdued a terrorist on-board a Northwest Airlines Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit has rewritten the legend of the Flying Dutchman.

Schuringa, a native of the Netherlands, demonstrated the kind of leadership behavior we most want to witness during a crisis--courage, combined with a fair amount of survival instinct. In a "blink moment" of absolute clarity about what needed to be done, Schuringa hurled himself across the plane from his position in seat 20J to the terrorist seated in 19A and simultaneously restrained the suspect, searched his body for the explosives that had started a fire and worked to put out the flames that threatened the survival of every passenger on-board.

Can we teach 20J leadership like that demonstrated by Schuringa? Yes and no.
It is certain that 20J leaders arrive hardwired with courage, a sense of calm under pressure, and a bias towards action over prolonged analysis. This is evident in Schuringa's decision to move toward the explosion and subdue the terrorist when he realized fire threatened the plane. Survival is of course a great motivator.

Did Schuringa take time to think? Probably. But like most crisis leaders, he was likely thinking and acting concurrently - with all neurons firing at once. Leaders like Schuringa have a fundamental idea of what they'll do to address an unexpected situation and tend to rapidly scan the horizon and seize the opportunity to act -- rather than sit, watch and analyze for an extended period. It's also fair to say that they dynamically determine the required next steps as events unfold.

The fundamental approach to managing in a crisis can be taught. Hospital staff are a prime example; in an emergency, they are taught conduct triage and treat the most critically injured patients first. The same is true for medics on a battlefield of injured soldiers. Likewise, we can teach individuals the rules of engagement in times of crisis, train them in the required methods to assess business conditions and threats, and provide them with tools necessary to mobilize a workforce.

These instructions, however, only prepare individuals for events that can be anticipated, with prescribed actions to manage and contain those situations, creating a playbook that leaders can follow. What we cannot teach is courage in unpredictable times. It is a DNA-coded quality that has distinguished success from significance in leaders for generations.

Jasper Schuringa demonstrated the most vital characteristic of crisis leadership in his courage to act, even when his own life was at stake. He possessed no playbook, no rules to follow or training, and certainly had no prior experience fighting terrorism. What Schuringa possessed were acute instincts, a will to survive, and a driving belief that someone needed to do something quickly to avert a catastrophe. He elected to take action -- and all 278 passengers on that fateful flight are surely grateful for his leadership.

By Alaina Love

 |  December 29, 2009; 7:06 AM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Schuringa is an amateur. Only men and women in uniform are professional heroes.

Posted by: therapy | January 4, 2010 8:49 AM
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And for "helloisanyoneoutthere" who commented on the definiton of "hero", pl. spend some time and read up Wiki and other sources. You'll be surprised!


KMAJUMDER, first Wikipedia can be authored by pretty much anyone. No special degrees or experience is necessary.

What I define as a hero may be different than you. I've seen heroism before.

One person I would call a real hero is Lenny Skutnik. I'm not sure if you know who that is, but back on January 13, 1982, an Air Florida plane attempted to take off from what was then, Washington National Airport. It was a snowy cold day, and the plane was unable to gain altitude due to icing and crashed on the 14th Street bridge and ended up in the Potomac River.

A rescue helicopter tried to drop a line down to a struggling passenger who was too weakened by the cold water. While hundreds of onlookers watched, Lenny Skutnik took off his coat and boots, and dove into the icy waters, at risk to his own life, to pull the woman to safety.

Skutnik wasn't expected to perform this act of heroism, heck I'm sure afterward many of his friends and family were saying "what the hell were you thinking of?" But he did it to save someone else's life, while risking his own.

Mr. Schuringa no doubt, is a brave guy who quickly thought out the situation in a clear headed manner, but bravery is simply the first step towards being a hero.

I think I already said, if Mr. Schuringa saw a man who was on fire, and jumped on him to put the fire out, putting himself in danger to save a fellow passenger, then yes, I guess I would call him a hero.

If he realized that this guy was a crazy who was attempting to kill 300 passengers on the plane, Mr. Shuringa being one of the possible victims, then Mr. Shuringa's life was already in danger and he was simply fighting to survive.

For some people, survival is demonstrated in different ways. You can run away from it, and in this case on an enclosed plane, give the crazy the opportunity to ignite the bomb and you would likely perish. Or jump the guy and try to keep him from killing you and live.

Just like those on United Flight 93 that crashed into the ground in Pennsylvania. There was nowhere to run; the passengers knew what the plans were for the plane; what were their options? Attempt to survive, or sit in your seat and watch the plane fly into the White House or Capital Building.

Were these people brave? Of course they were! But without knowing what was in their minds before they decided to storm the cockpit, (Save the White House, or Capital, or attempt to survive) I'm not certain the hero label should be placed on the action.

Posted by: helloisanyoneoutthere | December 30, 2009 1:03 AM
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no he didn't think. when something like this this happens those who have the natural confidence to act, they don't think. He didn't know what the outcome would be, he's not necessarily fearless or the bravest, he probably just has a naturally-balanced level of confidence. I've found myself in the same sort of no-time-to-think situations and upon reflection, there's no recollection of thinking about what's going on, one just knows what needs to be done, and does it. Upon reaching the man and the fire, yes, he probably started to think at that point.

Posted by: logicaldiginick | December 29, 2009 8:26 PM
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Adrenalin, fear, some concern for his own safety and that of his fellow travelers -- I'm sure some of this motivated Mr. Schuringa.

I agree most with those who say that if we teach the right values and perhaps lose the emphasis on "teaching to the test" in our schools, more people like Jasper will have the tools they need to make quick witted decisions.

I'm just glad this story turned out as well as it did.

What if Mr. Schuringa was one of our world's perpetual adolescents, more involved with his laptop, iPhone or MP3 player?

An "ironic distance" isn't always a good idea, is it?

Posted by: tony_in_Durham_NC | December 29, 2009 4:22 PM
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This guy was definitely heroic in that he put himself in immediate danger and did something beyond what was called of him to help others. He wasn't paid, and he wasn't doing a job.

Was there some personal interest there? Yes, of course. But that doesn't at all disqualify him as a hero.

Heros are those who take special risks and they may undertake varying degrees of heroic action.

Heros in these situations should be distinguished from mere onlookers. People who survive a disaster, for example, aren't doing anything especially heroic, even though the media might portray them as heros.

While the pilot who landed the plane on the Hudson did something extraordinary, he was in the end performing his job and was clearly in the line of duty, so his heroism, while real, was not really so outstanding as it was portrayed.

Much to the contrary of what one poster here wrote, a person shouldn't need to train a lifetime to do something heroic. Heroism usually comes in spontaneous action and not necessarily through trained action.

People have become too passive and complacent in the modern era. I would hope more passengers would have it in them to take the kind of action that Jasper Schuringa did.

Finally, the fact that he might be capitalizing on the media play of his actions is not at all unusual in our times. Let him have his 15 minutes of fame. Unlike some others we've heard of, at least he has earned it.

Posted by: ttj1 | December 29, 2009 3:41 PM
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Is this guy a 'hero'? Sure he is. Not pre-planned. Not knowing if the bomb was a dud or about to explode...he rose to the occasion, so to speak. He lept in to stop an impending total catastrophe. Others sat and stared in frozen panic and fear. He did not. That is all the difference. Now, is he rare or even unique? No. From the person who darts in front of a truck to save a child to the soldier who jumps on a live granade to save his buddies...we see such behavior. We're all fortunate that there are such people. I sure hope one is around should I find myself in a tight spot. Maybe I am that person....I hope so.

Posted by: mosthind | December 29, 2009 3:08 PM
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If only those we rely on to protect us from the terrorists, had another gear other than I for incompetence, travel would be something other than a terrifying experience. Those of us that are compelled to travel for a living do not think the words of the Secretary of Homeland Security, "the system worked", are very compelling. Obviously the Washington elitists do not have the same level of circumstances that we face.

Posted by: ltierney2 | December 29, 2009 2:39 PM
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I had similar quick wits and "leadership" if you will when I saved a woman's life by performing the Heimlich Maneuver on a lady that was choking on a piece of food at a diner I was eating at.

I saw the situation developing before me and almost without thinking, got up out my chair, put my arms around the woman from behind and performed the function.

I believe that's what this passenger probably did.

He probably noticed what was happening and without thinking another moment, got out of his seat and hurtled himself at the suspected terrorist before subduing him and putting out the fire.

You can be taught functions but you can't be taught action. That comes from within.

Posted by: dc1020008 | December 29, 2009 2:31 PM
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I hope and pray that I have the same guts and quick thinking what Schuringa showed at the time of emergency. God bless him and hopefully his burn injury heals quickly. Burn is no fun :-(

What suprises me is that some people would rather die than praise someone else's action. I guess these people fall in two categories. Some are Terroist sympathizers who are upset that Schuringa thwarted the attepmt. I dare them to come out in the open and say what they really believe in. Others are die-hard sceptics. However, if these sceptics do something good themselves, they would want nothing less than a President's medal and tons of cash, trust me.

And for "helloisanyoneoutthere" who commented on the definiton of "hero", pl. spend some time and read up Wiki and other sources. You'll be surprised!

Posted by: kmajumder | December 29, 2009 1:40 PM
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I we all had been in the flight we all would have been very thankful to Schuringa, whether or not he actually stopped the bomb from going off or at least helped to dissipate the fire. At that moment he could not have known whether the bomb had failed or was about to explode, yet he jumped on the guy anyway to act. All these are undeniable facts for which he must be commended. How he and others are handling the publicity is another matter. I think Captain Sully handled the public recognition of his leadership in an emergency with high class and humbleness, with a good balance between privacy while allowing some some demands by the public to know more about him. That is the balance to aim for in these situations for the heroes that surface in these cases.

Posted by: jcruz1 | December 29, 2009 1:32 PM
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Who will play him in the movie? Jean-Claude Van Damme, or is he too old?

Honestly, I think we're making too much of this. On the one hand, if he were American, he'd be all over the current affairs shows and morning talk fests. On the other, he seems to be quite full of himself--hardly the humble hero we'd admire.

Still, he is pretty hot.

Posted by: chunche | December 29, 2009 12:59 PM
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I'm not a coward,
I've just never been tested
I'd like to think that if I was,
I would pass
Look at the tested and think there but for the grace go I
Might be a coward,
I'm afraid of what I might find out.

Posted by: Sam888 | December 29, 2009 12:57 PM
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But when you do merciful deeds, don't let your left hand know what your right hand does,
Matthew 6:3
World English Bible

Thank you Jasper!

Posted by: jamespmarion | December 29, 2009 12:03 PM
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I'm really surprised at how little has been written about this passenger. This is the first time I've come across his name. Perhaps he is a true leader in that he isn't interested in promoting himself or his behavior after the fact. Thanks for letting us know who he was.

Posted by: corbinb | December 29, 2009 11:45 AM
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It's called the survival instinct along with quick reflexes.

Posted by: browneri | December 29, 2009 11:42 AM
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Only a cynic would think that Schuringa acted out of personal gain. He rose above his own instinctive fears and headed toward danger to avert a catastrophe. He acted quickly and thought clearly in a life- threatening situation. That is true courage. I doubt that any of the passengers or crew on flight 263 would begrudge him of any benefit he may derive from his actions. Mr. Schuringa is welcome to ride on my plane or car any day of the week. The man is a hero and should be recognized as such by President Obama.

Posted by: pdwatson | December 29, 2009 11:39 AM
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If he isn't a hero, then the word should be redefined or abolished. Just ask the passenergs who didn't burn and crash to the ground and die that fateful day.

Posted by: ScottChallenger | December 29, 2009 11:38 AM
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Not too sure I care what he's doing now for his "15 minutes", but he's absolutely a hero. He had no idea the bomb was going to go off or not and he put himself in harms way. We talk about the heros of United 93 all the time (rightfully so) and they probably saved a lot of lives on the ground. This guy potentially saved everyone on that plane and god only knows what else on the ground.

Like I said, I'm too sure I care about what he's doing now, buy I certainly think he deserves all the praise he gets for what he did that night.

Posted by: thensell | December 29, 2009 11:31 AM
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I was raised to be nice and polite to other peoples. I would not have reacted to this threat because of a deeply ingrained idea that it would have been "rude". My brother, on the other hand, would have had no problem twisting this guy into a pretzel because he was making a nuisance of himself and would have been greatly surprized to have been considered a "hero".

Posted by: MICA77 | December 29, 2009 11:28 AM
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Posted by: willemkraal | December 29, 2009 11:24 AM
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I think it's difficult to call this heroism. I'm not sure what Mr. Schuringa's intentions were when he jumped on the guy. Was he attempting to put out the fire, or subdue someone he thought was about to kill him?

Some people are able to get past the fear stage, clear their head and realize that survival is their most immediate task.

Heroes are the ones who themselves aren't in any immediate danger, and then place themselves in harms way to save someone else.

Not to belittle his actions but this doesn't mean that Schuringa isn't a brave soul to jump on the guy to keep him from being killed. Only he knows what his immediate intentions were.

Posted by: helloisanyoneoutthere | December 29, 2009 11:19 AM
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I think we are all missing the point of the article. Yes, he should be commended for what he did as I'm sure there was not a line of people waiting to jump in and handle the situation, and what he is doing now is not right but he definitely isn't the first person to capitalize on such a situation. The article is simply pointing out that you can teach skills and you can teach a method of assessing a situation in a crisis and you can practice those until you are blue in the face, but you can not teach courage or willingness to step up in a crisis. You are either hardwired with that mentality and drive to survive or you are not. People who possess this innate ability to react with poise, confidence and courage under pressure are not rare but are usually found in careers that demand such quick reaction and decision-making because as the writer pointed out...you are not able to teach those behaviors.

Posted by: EKS1 | December 29, 2009 11:17 AM
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One has to ask what the passengers sitting close to the terrorist do? So Schuringa should be commended for his courage and leadership in this situation. We need more people like him!

Posted by: concerneddcresident | December 29, 2009 11:14 AM
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I'm surprised people are so quick to criticize this author for analyzing Schuringa's actions. Putting aside the question of how much to commend him, it is worthwhile to ask why he acted when others didn't. Most people don't step up in such a situation, so maybe there is something to be learned here.

Posted by: Luise22 | December 29, 2009 11:03 AM
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I hate to be cynical, but from reading his comments, the guy seems to be milking it for all its worth. Sure, he should be commended, but the media is talking about him "foiling the bomb attempt" when the truth is, the bomb failed to go off. It was luck, not his actions that stopped the bomb.

Posted by: nuzuw | December 29, 2009 10:25 AM
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No way this guy should b man of the year. Read th enews today about him trying to profit within the first minutes after deboarding the plane. His perferve sense of duty and honor is now in the spotlight, money for photos, money for interviews, money for contacgt with Dutch news organizations. Dispicable.

Posted by: cadam72 | December 29, 2009 10:22 AM
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A great thing that Schuringa did and I'm so glad it worked out so well!! But this woman is trying to analyze the HELL out of it. LEADERSHIP??? Adrenalin, dear, not complicated thought processes. What a CROCK...

Posted by: bigsprgs | December 29, 2009 9:34 AM
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you are ready to canonize this passenger, when you really know nothing about him. this is so typical of the media rush and frenzy to hyper-leap to conclusions without giving those involved in a story a thorough examination.

yes, the guy did a great thing and stopped a terrorist act. but stop and think for a second please. did he prepare his entire life for this moment, such as how capt. sully did when he landed the plane in the hudson? THAT is the mark of a true leader. seriously, are you this guy's publicist in secret?

do some math too -- how many lives does one have to save to be a leader? say i'm on the street and see someone about to get hit by a car. i leap and push the person out of the street, saving their life. do i get an entire Wash Post column hailing me as a leader? "no"?!? why, does saving one life not matter as much?

lastly, take a look at this -- your leader that you're swooning all over is now resorting to crass commercialism over his actions. i can't wait to read your apologist comeback to explain how this conforms with with the actions of a leader.


Posted by: 5160519 | December 29, 2009 9:30 AM
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Definately, this guy should be the man of the year. More people like him are needed. This guy might have saved the lives of 300+ people, not to mention Billions of dollars in compensation etc and the heartbreak and witch-hunt to follow. Hopefully the airlines are taking notice of this(and compensating him).

Posted by: rksingh1987 | December 29, 2009 9:20 AM
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Amen Krist. Please don't ascribe any herculean attributes to Schuringa. He was acting on raw adrenalin, with a hefty dose of fear.

Posted by: demtse | December 29, 2009 9:15 AM
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Whoa -- before we crown Schuringa courageous leader here, I hope he can get the film made. He will make a film about Flight 263, right?

Posted by: kristopher1 | December 29, 2009 9:00 AM
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