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West Point Cadets
West Point cadets and instructors

West Point Cadets

A group of 13 cadets and four instructors from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point take on the weekly 'On Leadership' questions. Who better to explore the gray areas of leadership than members of The Long Gray Line?

What is humanly possible

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?

All too often, senior leaders of large companies are seen as cowardly and out of touch with reality. In fact, CBS highlights this perception with their show Undercover Boss, where CEOs go undercover to check out how their company's work really affects employees and customers. When a leader gets his or her hands dirty, followers can be inspired to do extraordinary things. When the big boss jumps in the pool, the waves affect all the swimmers.

In the Army, a consistent lesson I have learned is to be involved with people at all levels. Not only do you gain a better understanding of what your people need and want, they also get to know you as a person, and not just the name that signs their paycheck. In the bleakest situations, a leader gets his or her hands dirty to inspire their followers to action.

In survival swimming class, my classmates and I push ourselves in the shadow of what we feel is imminent drowning. To quell our fears of drowning, the instructor demonstrates for us how to successfully swim, then bob and travel the length of a pool with combat gear and a rifle. The teacher does it first, not only to show us the safest technique, but to motivate us -- to show that what he asks of us is humanly possible.

In situations where fear can paralyze followers, leaders can make a difference when they simply take action. Capitalizing on the perception that "the big boss" is too important to do anything more daring than wear a pink tie to work, leaders can snap people out of their funk or fears. Breaking that "big boss" perception in bold ways inspires wary onlookers and skeptics to embrace what they may think is the impossible. -- Cadet Christina Tamayo

The opportunity of 'good crisis'

As Italian philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli wrote, "Never waste the opportunities offered by a good crisis." A crisis can be a moment of chaos if leaders disappear. But a crisis is also a chance to shine as a leader by regaining control and showing your employees you are competent and are looking out for the best interests of everyone involved.

I believe leaders have a real chance to show their followers or employees exactly how much they trust them, or how far they are willing to go for them in the time of crisis. It is easy to say you will stand by your people when everything is going well; it is another to follow through on your words when everything around you seems to be failing.

The actions of the chief executives of these two airlines speak volumes for the amount of trust they place in their employees. As a result their employees feel involved and connected with the senior leadership in their organization. -- Cadet Carissa Hauck

More than meets the eye

The actions of the airline executives show good leadership, but not for the reason one might think. Listen to what these leaders are saying in their post test-flight press conferences. Their actions may appear laudable, but in their words I hear opportunistic free advertising and pressure on governmental safety organizations to get their airplanes, full of paying passengers, back in the sky.

Airlines can't make any money with their planes on the ground, and I believe the leaders of a few airlines are attempting to force the issue by flying with crews aboard these safety check flights. It gets them airtime and a voice that resonates with potential paying passengers.

Don't get me wrong, they're exercising good leadership by pursuing the best interests of their organizations in order to get their planes flying again, but let's not anoint them as daring and selfless leaders who place themselves in harm's way in the name of leading by example. Their leadership should be recognized as good for the financial health of their airlines, but not as some inspirational tactic for motivating their aircrews. The employees of KLM and British Airways should be very proud of their leaders for getting paying passengers, not themselves, back in the sky. -- Col. Eric G. Kail

Lead from the front

Lead from the front; since first entering West Point, my classmates and I have heard this phrase again and again. The significance of this statement didn't quite make sense to us at first, but as time has gone by and my classmates and I have gained knowledge and experience, it seems few phrases are better for getting at the heart of what it means to be a leader.

As leaders, it is our responsibility to share in the risks taken by our subordinates. The managers of KLM and British Airways did this by participating in test flights after a volcanic eruption cast doubts upon the safety of air travel. Generals such as Stanley McChrystal, head of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, will from time to time go on patrols with his soldiers.

Taking symbolic actions such as these underscores the faith and confidence a leader has in his or her cause. It shows subordinates that the leader is willing to assume the same risks they face, and as a result, the act can bolster the confidence of the subordinate. Where can we find our best leaders? Take a look up front. -- Cadet Brian McBee

Earning trust

A high-ranking position in senior management does necessarily make you a great leader. Rather, the most successful leaders lead by example and exhibit personal courage. Both these qualities were reflected in the decisions of the chief executives of KLM and British Airways to join their crews on test flights.

During a crisis, individuals need someone to trust. When leaders are willing to put their lives on the line, they will undoubtedly gain trust and legitimacy from those who seek their guidance. By choosing to join their crews on test flights, these executives are demonstrating the importance of these test flights. Because these executives are "symbolically involved" they have lent importance and legitimacy to the verdicts of the test flights in the public eye. -- Cadet Katie Woodhams

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

By West Point Cadets

 |  April 20, 2010; 11:23 AM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Doing rather than saying | Next: Quiet symbolism


Please report offensive comments below.

I did the drowning test twice. We can do the impossible, it just takes a lot longer.

Posted by: tossnokia | April 22, 2010 8:12 AM
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Your recognition of good leadership is on target.

But let's not forget the leaders in the regulatory bodies of the various government agencies responsible for the safety of the traveling public. It takes guts to put your foot down in the face of financial performance driven pressure when you don't know that it is absolutely safe to let flights resume.

Another thought: Are these same airline executives willing to go into their maintenance departments, pull a few airplane engines out of service, tear them down and personally inspect them to see if there is any damage from any aircraft that was flown through ash-impacted atmosphere? Including the aircraft they supposedly "flew in to show they are safe".

Please stop and think; go back to Journalism 101 and cover this continuing event with simple Who, What, Where, When facts as a basic. Reduce the opinion, quotes, and theorizing so the result comes across in factual, believable, succinct, summarized, credible stories.

We're all information rich and knowledge poor.

Good luck and keep up the good work! Mrs. Graham would be, and I'll bet Bradlee continues to smile warmly most of the time.
--Fred Huffman
Middletown, NJ

Posted by: Huffman214 | April 21, 2010 9:42 AM
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So, since the British Air and KLM execs have taken the lead to get planes flying we can expect them to step forward and accept responsibility if an aircraft goes down? Sounds like Ismay urging Captain Smith to go faster to break the record.

Posted by: csintala79 | April 21, 2010 8:45 AM
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Ya forgot George Armstrong Custer. He might be someone to look to for leadership in flying into an ash plume.

Posted by: mammyyel | April 20, 2010 5:24 PM
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Many years ago I started a small, retail food business in an area of the town that was a bit dangerous at night. I made the following rule: Never ask an employee to do something that you wouldn't do yourself.

From cleaning to serving customers, I did it all - side by side with employees. But when it was time to ask someone to be alone (could only afford one employee) in the store at night, the answer was NO. I wouldn't do it, nor would I ask someone else to take that chance. I was 24 at the time and I knew better.

Posted by: carolineC1 | April 20, 2010 12:33 PM
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