On 27 March 1977 two B747 jumbo jets, one from Pan Am and the other from KLM, smashed into each other on the runway of the airport at Tenerife in Spain. 583 people were killed. There were many reasons for the worst aircraft disaster ever but one man bears the maximum blame- the KLM pilot Jacob Van Zanten. Captain Van Zanten started the takeoff roll without the approval of Air Traffic Control, while, unknown to him, the Pan Am jumbo was on the same runway heading towards him.
Fast forward to almost 32 years later, in January 2009, Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenbeger landed US Airways Flight 1549, an Airbus A 320 with both engines dead, on the Hudson River near New York, and all 155 passengers and crew survived. This is the only recorded instance of a successful water landing by an airliner.
I am an aviation fan and I am also deeply interested in the psychology of decision making. So these two cases form the perfect platform to talk about high quality decisions.
What struck me as remarkable is that in both incidents the plane was commanded by a highly experienced and trained Pilot. Van Zanten was KLM’s Star, a Chief Flight Instructor with 11,000 + flying hours to his credit. He had just come off a six month long flying safety program. Sully was a veteran of the Vietnam War and had racked up 42 years in the cockpit by the time of the accident.
So if both were highly skilled why did one become a Villain and another a Hero???
Because important decisions demand not just technical competence - they require a huge amount of behavioral confidence or emotional intelligence.
Jacob Van Zanten was imperious, over confident, impatient and careless. He ignored or overruled comments made by two others in the Cockpit that day- the copilot and the flight engineer expressed doubts about taking off but neither of them pushed it, respectful of the hero like stature of the Captain. The first officer, having only 95 hours of flying experience, lacked the confidence to challenge the captain. A deadly mix of over confidence and under confidence.
Sully was calm- losing two engines in midair is truly the nightmare of pilots. In fact the passengers didn’t know how bad it was till a few seconds before the ditching he calmly announced “Brace for Impact”. He was also confident. Interviewed later, he said “I was sure I could do it”. Over confidence? Not really, just the right mindset. And the team work in the plunging aircraft was crucial.
The cabin crew and copilot worked calmly, expertly, smoothly and quietly with the Captain to ensure a controlled ditching. As the A320 headed towards the water, Sully was controlling the airplane, but the co-pilot was monitoring the performance of the airplane and Sully’s performance without Sully having to tell him anything.
What is relevant in a Cockpit also hold true for a Board room. An aircraft is not dissimilar to a business. As a business leader (CEO, CFO, GM, Department Head, Manager), it’s not enough that you know how to do it (technical or financial skills).
You also need to manage yourself and others and this is arguably the more important skill and this blend of technical and behavioral is called Commercial Acumen.
We live in unusually turbulent times. As a business leader you may have to deal with volatility in financial markets, poor or declining demand for your products, falling profits and cash flows, massive layoffs, vicious competition, geopolitical risk, cyber-attacks, sharp rise in input prices, loss of key clients or staff etc.
There is uncertainty and volatility every day and everywhere and this may be a part of life for a long time. Commercial Acumen hence is the essential part of a Leader’s toolkit.