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Robert Goodwin

Robert Goodwin

Robert J. Goodwin is CEO and co-founder of Executives Without Borders; former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force and appointee at USAID, the State Department and the White House.

Fly your leadership flag

Q: A cloud of volcanic ash grounds European airlines and the chief executives of KLM and British Airways join their crews on test flights to show that it is safe to fly. What do these actions say about the importance of symbolic involvement by top leaders in responding to crises?

From flight delays to rising prices, and from bankruptcies to fatal crashes, the airlines operate in a near constant state of crisis - and, for the most part, their leaders understand what it takes to assuage public anger and anxiety when it matters most.

When the CEOs of KLM and British Airways took to the skies to demonstrate that it is once again safe to fly, it was just the latest in a long line of effective crisis management tactics we've seen from airline leadership in recent years. When United Airlines filed for Chapter 11 back in 2002, executives were at the gates to speak with passengers and employees about how the move would impact them. When an Air France flight bound for Paris from Rio de Janiero disappeared above the Atlantic in 2009, it was the visibly shaken Air France CEO that was at Charles de Gaulle to field reporter questions and comfort the victims' families.

This breed of front-lines leadership builds trust among stakeholders because it shows that executives aren't comfortably insulated in some ivory tower while the world they control crumbles around them. While largely symbolic, such actions articulate that "we're all in this together." Like a battle-tested combat veteran, a CEO who is on the ground when times are at their toughest has the credibility needed to lead stakeholders out of the storm and toward calmer waters ahead.

When a leader steps up and makes a sacrifice (whether it be time, money, or simply putting one's self in an uncomfortable situation for the benefit of those around him or her) the public understands that it is largely a symbolic gesture - but that doesn't matter. Leaders are symbols themselves - and those most affected by disaster situations want to see the flag raised high. That's how leaders demonstrate a sense of responsibility and transparency in age sorely in need of both.

By Robert Goodwin

 |  April 21, 2010; 1:42 PM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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