A Sharpie can't erase history

We are fortunate to live in the 21st Century for a long list of reasons, but one of them is the fact that passenger air travel has never been safer. While there are still incidents and accidents from time to time (and maybe even some accidents waiting to happen), flying is orders of magnitude safer than it was a few decades ago. Some of the romance of flight may be gone, but it's sure a lot safer.

Part of that increased safety comes from better technology. Today's airplanes are better-built than their predecessors, contain safer materials, and use technologies like collision avoidance systems that make crashes less likely, and more survivable when they do happen.

Maintenance practices on the ground are in many ways better, too, and better attention is now paid to predictive and preventive maintenance than in the past. Fix-on-failure may be a fine way to approach a ball-point pen or even a smartphone, but jet airliners need stress testing and fatigue inspections.

Yet airline safety isn't just a matter of better planes and better maintenance. Perhaps the tool that does more than anything else to improve our safety in the skies is the improvements that have come about in pilot training and Crew Resource Management. Considerable effort goes into finding the causes of human error in the cockpit and eliminating those causes -- as well it should.

Among the most important lessons of Crew Resource Management is the indispensability of open communication between the pilot in command and the first officer. Fatal crashes could have been avoided if pilots had heeded the warnings of their crewmates, rather than believing their own infallibility. Such errors proved fatal on Asiana 214, First Air 6560, and Korean Air 8509, among other incidents.

The lesson for all of us -- not just in the cockpit, but in life generally -- is that systems can be made safer in many ways, including better technology and better maintenance (whatever form that may take in the area that is relevant to you). But above all, human leaders need to know that they are fallible. Even with great training, extensive experience, and refined judgment, the best leaders can still make mistakes, and depending on the circumstances, those mistakes can turn deadly. But they are far more likely to turn fatal or otherwise harmful if the person in command refuses to acknowledge the possibility that they could be in error.

It's a lesson as old as Icarus, of course, but it's extremely relevant in an age where our blessings and our curses -- like nuclear power and nuclear weapons -- are often two sides of the same coin. And whether it's inside the cockpit of a fast-moving airliner or someplace else, many of our day-to-day activities are so tightly connected to others and happen at such a fast pace that there may be less room for error than in a slower, lower-tech time in human history.

In other words, as things move faster and the world becomes more tightly interconnected, humility is not just a virtue, it is a premium characteristic we need to seek in every leadership role.

So, bearing all that in mind, what does it tell you about the "Crew Resource Management" in our national cockpit when -- rather than admitting his mistake in saying that Hurricane Dorian was headed towards Alabama -- the President not only insists that he was right, but unashamedly tries to revise history in ham-handed and instantly-disprovable fashion to suggest that he never made a mistake in the first place? This clumsy attempt to revise the obvious record undermines the professionals who made the real forecasts -- not the Sharpie-modified version. Just as a kid cannot turn a report-card "F" into an "A" just by adding a line, the facts of professional meteorology can't be changed just by adding a curve.

Never trust a leader who cannot admit a mistake. Never trust subordinates who never question the leader. Never trust a team that fabricates evidence instead of facing reality.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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