Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The role of VIP weight-throwing in air crashes (continued)

In Sunday's post, I spoke about the death of Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, in an air crash, and a possible reason for it (see post below).

A couple of days back, I read a Telegraph newspaper report that said Mr Kaczynski had a bit of a history in over-ruling pilots:

In August 2008, Mr Kaczynski "shouted furiously" at a pilot who had disobeyed his order to land his plane in then war-torn Georgia for safety reasons. He later tried to have Captain Grzegorz Pietuczak removed from his post with the Polish air force for insubordination, however, Donald Tusk, the Prime Minister intervened. Captain Pietuczak was later awarded a medal for carrying out his duties conscientiously for his refusal to land having judged the risks.

Mr Kaczynski was lucky in 2008 that he had a strong-willed pilot; this time round, he apparently wasn't so lucky.

(If you have any comments, please email me at cvdhruve@gmail.com. You can get more information about my book and reader comments at cvdhruve.com)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The role of VIP weight-throwing in air crashes

The recent death of the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski, in an air crash has again put the spotlight on the power equations in a cockpit.

Mr Kaczynski (and a host of senior figures) died when their plane crashed while trying to land in thick fog. What went wrong? According to this report in the Independent newspaper, 'VIP syndrome' is being blamed. Apparently, because of the bad weather in the area, air traffic control directed the plane to land at another airport. But the pilots didn't listen and continued their approach to the runway. Why didn't the pilots heed the warning?

The suspected reason (as of now): The President wanted to ensure he would be able to attend a function they'd gone for. So he over-ruled the pilot.

Viktor Timoshkin, a flight safety expert, was quoted as saying, ""Air-traffic control told him to take the plane to Moscow or Minsk. I'm certain that the pilot will have told the President about this, and got a firm reply that the plane must land in Smolensk."

The President was the boss of the plane and he over-ruled his subordinates, the pilots. The result was a disaster for everybody. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that something like this has happened. The world's worst aviation accident (the collision of two 747s at Tenerife), in which over 500 people died, was partly caused by the captain's refusal to listen to his flight engineer. The engineer had warned that another aircraft (invisible in a dense fog) was on the runway, right in the path of his own aircraft. The captain didn't listen, and the planes collided.

In India, a chief minister of a state was recently killed when his helicopter crashed in bad weather. Here too, the pilots didn't want to fly, but the minister insisted on doing so, so he could attend a function (the same as the Polish President).

(If you have any comments, please email me at cvdhruve@gmail.com. You can get more information about my book and reader comments at cvdhruve.com)

Friday, April 02, 2010

“Life as the wife of a Lehman Brothers banker”

I’m no longer surprised by stories of controlling and dictatorial bosses. But an article about the wives of those who worked for the now dead financial firm, Lehman Brothers, really got my attention.

The article, published in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, is called “Life as the wife of a Lehman Brothers banker.” The article talks about a book, “The Devil’s Casino”, written by journalist Vicky Ward, who reveals the horror of life at Lehman. The article says:

There was an annual summer jaunt to the Fuld’s ranch in Sun Valley, Idaho. Not for this lot relaxing walks and jovial team bonding; the weekend was planned with military precision. Ward writes that the men were expected to wear “khaki pants and either a golf shirt or button-down”; Fuld believed that sloppy dress equalled sloppy thinking. The women had to pack “pretty dresses, jewellery, and Manolo Blahnik shoes” as well as hiking gear for the day. This annual hike was so gruelling that one wife turned up with a fake plaster cast in an attempt to get out of it. To her horror, another wife had turned up with a real cast on, but still planned to do the hike. “The wives were just as competitive as their husbands,” says Ward. “If anything, they were more political.”

Even worse:

Yet Ward says she found the roles that the wives were expected to play “chilling”. There is one particular episode in the book that stands out in this respect. Karin Jack, the wife of executive Bradley Jack, recalls the moment one of their children had a seizure. That day some of the senior executives and their wives were due to go and look at a house that Joe Gregory, the company’s then chief operating officer, was building. “We were using Joe’s helicopter,” says Karin in the book. “But I said, 'I have to take my son to the paediatrician.’ So they landed the Sikorsky near our home and waited for me, and they were not leaving without me. Can you imagine the pressure? I have this really sick child, but I know that if I don’t get on that helicopter it’s going to hurt Brad.”

What stands out is that absolute obedience was expected. In the Q&A section on her book’s page on Amazon, Ward says:

You cannot run a major securities firm without tolerating dissent or change at the top. Lehman’s “one firm” culture that made it so great when it was a tiny sub-division of a much larger entity became its nemesis when it was a stand-alone investment bank. Anyone who disagreed with Dick Fuld, or more importantly, the firm’s day-to-day manager Joe Gregory was either fired or quit."

All this – expecting wives to stick by the firm’s rules, intolerance of dissent and so on – brings only one word to my mind: dictatorship. But then, Systems Thinking shows us that these behaviors are only to be expected.

(If you have any comments, please email me at cvdhruve@gmail.com. You can get more information about my book and reader comments at cvdhruve.com)