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How to Prevent a Team Disaster

January 13, 1982 was a cold day in Washington DC. The temperature hovered at 24 degrees and heavy snow was falling. At 4:00 PM, after waiting 1 hour and 45 minutes for Washington National Airport to reopen, Air Florida Flight 90 took off bound for Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Boeing 737 flew for approximately three quarters of a mile before crashing into the 14th Street Bridge. The subsequent FAA investigation found that a major cause of the crash was icing of the engine intake sensing probes. The investigation also revealed that the co-pilot had expressed concern about unusual engine indications four times during the take-off sequence. Air Florida instructions made it clear that only the captain had the authority to reject a take-off so even though the co-pilot could see a critical problem, he did not have the authority to stop the plane.

As with any mishap there were multiple factors leading up to the crash, but two factors stand out that provide valuable lessons in team leadership. The first is active listening. Both the captain and the first officer were experienced pilots, though neither of them had much experience operating in cold weather and icing conditions. Team leaders should never consider themselves the smartest person in the room. It’s okay, in fact it’s essential for leaders to admit to the team when they are unsure and solicit the team’s input. Good leaders know that while their position may give them authority, it does not give them any added knowledge or ability. In fact, their additional responsibilities can make leaders less aware of the details of what the group is doing. That’s why active listening is so important. Chances are always very good that someone on the team will have a better idea or see something the leader missed.

The second lesson has to do with authority. Effective leaders concentrate less on their authority and more on their responsibilities. In an aircraft, the captain is responsible for the lives of everyone on board. He or she is also responsible for passenger comfort, meeting the schedule, and a myriad of other things. Like the captain, leaders usually have the authority to allow them to meet their responsibilities but more than one team has failed because the leader focused on their authority rather than their responsibility.

Have you been on a team with a leader who was so impressed with his or her authority that they ignored the input of team members? Was that team as effective as it could be? When team leaders fail to actively listen to what the team is telling them and when they concentrate on authority rather than responsibility, the result can be disastrous – for the entire team.

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