Leadership Up in the Air: Pilots Challenge Safety Culture

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When to be defiant? When to be compliant?

Management systems and corporate culture bring order to complex organizations and provide stability. But leaders necessarily need to step out, go beyond, and risk deviating from business as usual. Responsible individuals in the trenches of corporate America know that, as I illustrated in my recent blog entry about leaders Testing Organizational Culture.Choosing defiance may pose substantial risks for a leader.

Risking defiance rather than compliance can be a very costly leadership act.

US Airways pilots recently challenged management by surfacing conflict over a pilot’s decision not to take off because of a faulty power unit when pushing back from the gate. It is difficult to know what politics may be at play here. But given the amount of time I spend on airplanes, I give the benefit of the doubt to the pilot who refused to fly. As stated in the report by the US Airlines Pilot Association , “At US Airways, pilots who refuse direct orders are putting their jobs at risk.”

I am acutely aware that given the continuing economic recession, employees at all levels of an organization are concerned about their jobs being at risk. Risking defiance rather than compliance can be a very costly leadership act. But leaders must be willing to break the rules. By defying orders to fly, these pilots are challenging the safety culture of US Airways.

We need more leaders willing to challenge the powers that be, most of all when our future is up in the air.