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Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Columbia University students
Leadership students

Columbia University students

The graduate students contributing here are members of "Leadership Development" at course at Teacher's College, Columbia University, taught by On Leadership panelist Todd Henshaw.

Leaps of faith

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?


When a devastating problem disrupting thousands of customers' lives, wasting billions in potential revenue and compromising an industry occurs, it's a tell tale sign something needs to be done, and quick. Watching, waiting patiently and peering from the sidelines is one thing; taking action, jumping in and being a part of a solution is another. Sometimes you just have to jump in and take a chance. If you have a good gut feeling go with it, right?

Responding to a crisis such as the volcanic earthquake in Iceland takes more than a gut feeling. Having the fire in the belly to make monumental decisions is needed by a chief executive as much as the magma that causes the volcano to erupt. In this instance someone needs to test the waters, in this case the skies.

Once the ash cloud has settled, having others jump in and take a chance always sounds like a better choice, right? We see examples of such decision making in movies, but in reality it is much easier said than done. Making the decision to show by example the confidence to fly safely across the receding ash cloud shows strength and gives employees and customers a reason to trust them, the trust that if chief executives are willing to jump in, it's customers should feel safe to follow.

This is going above and beyond the requirements of a chief executive, and delving into what it means to be a leader. This is the intersection where leadership meets business. -Michael Ellenbogen


Accountability from on high

The symbolic involvement of leaders on BA and KLM test flights reminds me of the frustration felt by the public during the credit crisis towards the CEOs and top executives of our financial institutions. Wall Street employees and Main Street tax payers alike were looking for leaders to say, "I am in this with you; I'm willing to take the hit with you." Unfortunately, we didn't see this display of courage or righteousness from these leaders.

Today's chief executives are picked for a lot of reasons other than the qualities that truly make them inspirational and transformational leaders. Courage, as hard as it is to come by, is a quintessential leadership quality and should not be limited to our military leaders. It is a requirement for leaders of all institutions that impact public life. These leaders need courage to stand by their followers in times of adversity, courage to step out of their corner offices and spend time on the ground with their employees, and courage to admit mistakes. These are all qualities that should be expected from all our leaders. - Archana Ramesh


Twenty dollar snacks

Every morning there is a new headline which reads, "Airline industry losing $20 billion a day due to volcanic ash covering European airspace." It's been six days, people are stranded and everyone is angry. Eurocontrol wasn't thinking about the financial impact on the airline industry when they shut down air traffic...and they shouldn't have been.
That said, air traffic is slowly starting to pick up...and although I had heard that the airlines were conducting test flights, I did not know that KLM and BA execs had joined their crews on them. This act of leadership initially stopped me in my tracks; I was impressed. Wait, there's that nagging voice in the back of my head saying that the executives would do anything right now to get those planes in the sky, to try to make up their losses, and keep their day jobs. Call me a cynic, but isn't their job to ensure profitability while Eurocontrol's mission is to ensure safety in the air? Aren't they the same people that decided to charge us for snacks on our flights? -Sharon Ha

By Columbia University students

 |  April 21, 2010; 2:07 PM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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