On December 28, 1978, United 173 was coming in to land at Portland, Oregon, when a piston slipped on the landing gear, causing the landing gear to fall into place with a thump.  But the landing gear did come down, and the plan should have been able to land safely within 40 minutes of the problem being diagnosed.  Instead, the plane crash landed, tearing through two houses and dozens of trees before skidding to a halt.  The plane crashed because it ran out of fuel.

The plane actually had plenty of fuel to cover the 40 minutes—it stayed in the air in a holding pattern for another half hour beyond that.  And the fuel gauges were working.  And someone was paying attention to the fuel gauges: the flight engineer called out the amount of time left several times.  But the captain wasn’t listening; he told the control tower that they intended to land in five minutes AFTER the flight engineer had announced that they had three minutes of fuel left.  The flight engineer died.  The captain survived.

It used to be the case that there were more plane crashes when the captain was flying the plane than the less experienced first officer.  The evidence suggests that if the first officer was about to make a mistake, the captain would speak up; but if the captain was about to make a mistake, other crew members were not assertive in the face of the captain’s authority.  This tendency to meekness in the presence of power is called mitigated speech.  But after the crash of United 173, United started an effort to change the dynamics of the relationship between captains and subordinates in the cockpit. The Crew Resource Management program (CRM, also known as “charm school”) taught captains to be less forceful, and taught juniors to be more assertive.

The evidence suggests that this effort has worked.  United 232 (July 19, 1989) suffered a catastrophic engine failure, and although many people died when the plane crash landed, the teamwork among the crew is credited with preventing more fatalities.  The captain credited CRM.  After that, the FAA made CRM training mandatory for all airline crews in the US.  Similarly, US Airways 1549 (January 15, 2009)—made into the movie Sully—crash landed with no loss of life, surviving a crisis for which there was no emergency checklist.  The accident report credited CRM.

Failure to listen to information from subordinates has led planes to crash, patients to die, and space shuttles to explode.  You’d think we’d have learned this lesson by now.

Charm school was initially resisted by captains, because it took away their power.  They were told to stop thinking of themselves as being in command and start thinking about themselves as part of a team—and as fallible as everyone else on the team.  Nevertheless, charm school was so successful that it was adapted for use with surgical teams, crews of nuclear power stations, NASA, the US Air Force, and firefighters.  These are all what are known as mission-critical teams—they work in very short time-frames (minutes and hours) and with very high stakes (if they screw up, people die).  We don’t think of educators as being in the same category as these life-or-death teams, but I would argue that the stakes are still very high—educational failure may not be life-ending for our kids, but it is certainly life-changing.  So where is our charm school?  And at what point are leaders going to receive input from others as a GIFT, and not a symptom of resistance, or not having the right mindset, or insubordination?

Please call if you want to talk more about this.  If you don’t think it’s a problem with you or your organization, you should DEFINITELY call—I really want to talk to you.  Have a good week.

Isobel Stevenson PhD PCC
Program Coordinator
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Avenue
Hartford, CT 06106
Office: 860.586.2340

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