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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Assessing leadership at sea and in the air

The sailing ship Bounty sank off the coast of North Carolina during Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Its captain, Robin Walbridge, and one crew member perished. Several crew members were severely injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board has just published its analysis of the sinking -- grim but educational reading. Although inexperience of the crew and condition of the vessel were factors in the sinking, the tragedy stemmed from the captain's initial decision to sail into harm's way and his inability to change his mind when problems were first noted. The NTSB characterizes his leadership as "reckless". In a NASA context, such behavior is called "Go fever" which was deadly in both the Challenger and Columbia losses that were attributed to problems known prior to launch.

To be fair, Walbridge's widow offers a different perspective. No one wishes to harpoon the deceased, and I sympathize with her and her daughter. But face facts: the NTSB got this right.

Captains at sea are accountable for everything that happens, whether they were directly involved or not. The U.S. Navy frequently fires captains for accidents (one, two, three). That's how it must be. A captain at sea cannot simply take the next highway exit to ask for directions, to call AAA, or to check into a hotel. This applies to airline captains, too. On Monday I'll take another flight over a big ocean. All pilots are required to have knowledge of the aircraft, memory of the emergency checklists, compliance with ATC procedures, hand-eye coordination to manipulate the controls, and so forth. But I'm relying on the captain of that flight, in particular, to have situational awareness and excellent decision-making skills -- and to perform better, not worse, during moments of high stress if they arise.

History acclaims captains like Jim Lovell and Chesley Sullenberger who demonstrate the "right stuff". History has a mixed assessment of captains like Leslie Gehres. And history is critical of captains like Robin Walbridge and Francesco Schettino. Let's be careful, though, to acclaim or to criticize the command behaviors of these captains, not the captains themselves.