The Case of the Blind Airplane Pilot

Recently, on Best of Cartalk, Tom told an interesting tale.

Apparently, a plane was delayed taking off. This isn’t the interesting part; in fact, that’s hardly even news. The plane subsequently made a stop and, big surprise, got delayed again. At this point, the pilot announced that since they were going to be sitting at the gate for some time, passengers might wish to disembark and stretch their legs. Everyone left except for Mr. Jones, a blind man. He had apparently flown this flight before as the pilot knew him by name.

“Mr Jones,” the pilot said, approaching the man, “we’ll be at the gate for at least an hour. Would you like to leave the plane?”

“No thank you,” said Jones, “but perhaps my dog would like a walk.”

A few moments later, passengers at the gate were treated to the sight of the pilot, in full uniform and wearing sunglasses, walking past seemingly led by a Seeing Eye dog.

Sometimes things are not what they appear to be. Of course a blind man with a service dog cannot be an airline pilot. The dogs can’t read the instruments. When it comes to choosing leaders, though, sometimes we’re not much different from a blind airline pilot, with potentially similar results if we get it wrong.

The question of whether someone looks like a leader is a concept that has been in the news a bit lately. I was asked on a radio show once what a leader looks like. I created a stretch of dead air when I responded, “Whatever we think a leader looks like.”

This is the problem with leadership: we can’t necessarily agree on what a leader looks like or even what it means to look like a leader.

Where do we learn what a leader looks like? Fundamentally, from our culture via a variety of sources: growing up, it may be through stories, books, TV, and movies. It may be through activities we take part in, such as sports or playing Dungeons and Dragons. It may be through acting in plays or participating in live roleplaying scenarios. In the workforce, people are seen as leaders sometimes just because they physically resemble other leaders or the company founder. Sometimes, merely acting like a known leader or imitating some key characteristic of theirs or being associated with them psychologically is enough to become recognizable as a leader.

The thing is, those cultural lessons are usually superficial and, at best, tell us only what past leaders looked like. Even worse, when someone matches up to the superficial characteristics of leadership, it is a common human response to assume they have other characteristics as well. Which other characteristics? Whichever characteristics the viewer thinks a leader should have. Conversely, those who do not fit the superficial image of “leader” are then assumed to not have the abilities a leader needs to be successful. Thus, an organization that focuses only on what worked in the past will often blind itself to the vast pool of talented people whom it is not promoting, and who are the right people for the problems the organization has today or will have tomorrow.

Ironically, a common reflex when things don’t work is to become frustrated and metaphorically hit the system with a monkey wrench: while percussive maintenance might sometimes work with a mechanical device, even then it works mainly in fiction. In reality, kicking your computer will rarely yield good results for either the computer or your foot. Hiring someone unskilled for the job just to shake things up may feel very satisfying, but the results are similar to hiring a pastry chef to perform open-heart surgery. He may shake things up, but it’s your funeral.

Thus, it is critical to look seriously at what a leader will be expected to do. What role will they play? What skills will they need? Failing to do this makes it easy to fall into the trap of appointing someone with the wrong skillset, or no skills at all. For example, in the early 2000s, Pfizer had two potential CEO candidates: Hank McKinnell and Karen Caten. McKinnell was an aggressive, abrasive man; Caten a woman who was praised for her ability to build teams. Pfizer chose McKinnell. As Harvard Business Review later observed, he was forced out five years later amid declining share prices, his abrasive manner being less than effective despite the fact that it initially appealed to board members’ mental image of what a leader “looked” like.

The image of an airline pilot with a service dog is comical. Choosing the wrong person to lead an organization is not. Leadership is about more than superficial characteristics: leaders require knowledge, skill, and temperament in order to be successful. Actually taking the time to understand the issues at a more than superficial level is critical to making a successful choice. There’s no reason to fly blind.

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