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Yash Gupta
Business School Dean

Yash Gupta

Yash Gupta is Professor and Dean of The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.

Rising to the occasion

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?

Leadership is as much about symbolism as about anything else. By taking part in these test flights, the CEOs of British Airways and KLM are letting passengers know that they are confident that air travel is safe again. In addition, these bosses are signaling to airline employees that they can believe in their companies and the people who lead them. It's not unlike a health crisis, such as the H1N1 flu episode, when you see leaders of the medical community take the first inoculations to demonstrate the safety of the product.

Government leaders in Europe have taken heat for shutting down air space, but I don't consider this fair criticism. Leaders sometimes have to make decisions that are unpopular; after all, they're the ones who are accountable to numerous constituencies. At the top of their list of obligations is public safety. Some people have complained because their business dealings have been interrupted or their vacations have been spent at a crowded airports. The airlines are losing $200 million a day, and 750,000 passengers have been stranded. People are understandably upset. But they don't have to look at the world through the prism of accountability, as society's leaders do.

It's not surprising that a crisis in air travel has left people feeling isolated and distressed, because air travel has done so much in the past century to eliminate distance. In a sense, air travel has re-created the equivalent of the prehistoric supercontinents such as Gondwanaland and Pangaea. Just as the great land masses were physically joined millions of years ago, they have been linked in a different way today by the speed and ease of modern air travel. Consequently, we have built greater interdependencies among our nations, our people, our businesses, our cultures. That's why even the temporary loss of easy travel has such a huge negative impact. And it's why I applaud the airline leaders who have risen to the occasion by demonstrating that it's safe again to fly.

By Yash Gupta

 |  April 20, 2010; 10:43 AM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Those chief executives demonstrated a very simple leadership principle by joining their crews on test flights: Leaders go first. Effective leaders put their money (in this case, their lives) where their mouth is. Everyone undertands that age old gesture: I'll go first - follow me.

Posted by: jddavis31 | April 26, 2010 5:19 PM
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