Leadership Lessons From Korean Airlines

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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What can school leaders learn from aviation and medical disasters?

I often wonder if high-performing schools have a happy staff culture …

Poor communication!

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers (2013) he describes aviation ‘cockpit culture’.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Korean Air experienced multiple aeroplane crashes, well above the industry average.

Gladwell explains why Korean Air Flight 801 crashed into a hill on its approach to Guam airport in 1997.

In “a series of misfortunes, including bad weather, an offline warning system, and outdated charts, the co-pilot was afraid to question the poor judgment of the pilot” – killing 223 people.

An example is given: 

“First officer: Do you think it rains more in this area?

Captain: (silence)

Flight engineer: Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot.

Captain: Yes. They are very useful.”

Poor communication between the flight crew was the probable cause of the air crash (Center for Junior Officers).

A routine operation …

In another example, Martin Bromiley’s wife Elaine went into hospital for a routine sinus operation. During anaesthetic induction, it all went horribly wrong, with prolonged attempts to secure her airway. In essence, the senior doctors ignored any concerns from the theatre nurses who suggested passing a tracheal tube to unblock her airway.

Elaine died 13 days later and was an otherwise fit and well 37 years old, mother-of-two.

The reason for both examples?

Korean Airlines were struggling with a cultural legacy: Korean culture is hierarchical. Some cultural norms dictate that juniors are inferior to seniority, and in this example, no response was given. 

In Martin Bromley’s story, his wife was let down by senior doctors who were not prepared to take emergency advice from others in the operating theatre.

Lessons for school leaders …

So, what have these two stories got to do with education?

Well, on my travels to schools around the country, some teachers report more happiness and higher productivity than others. Why? Well, the leadership team have created the conditions where all teachers can have their voices heard.

Although traditional lines of management exist, leaders create forums where staff voice is heard in all aspects of school life.  Decisions on timetabling, curriculum design and behaviour policy to opinions on assessment, values and classroom pedagogy are sought. Leadership office doors are open and inexperienced teachers are encouraged to share their thoughts, opinions and ideas without fear of retribution.

The message?

No matter how good we think we are, we all need people around us to help us consider our blindsides, particularly during periods of emergency or when suggestions may help us make better decisions.

Good school leaders survey the opinions of all staff and provide the tools for employees to ask challenging questions.

One thought on “Leadership Lessons From Korean Airlines

  1. I think this is a point well made. Any school leader, or SMT, ploughing a lone furrow is a terrible mistake and out of place in today’s education.

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