If the tux fits, it’s your problem

The crackle of the envelope. A painfully long pause. The wrong name. The rest is news. Amidst the diamonds, the sparkle and the swish of the Oscars the red carpet gave us a peep behind the scenes at (PriceWaterhouseCooper) PwC this year. Let’s be clear; nobody died. The mix-up really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things but, like Hamlet, we have been entertained by a melodrama which has resonance for our flying lives.

I watched an actor talking about the incident: “Someone is to blame”, he opined. As if pointing the finger was a good thing. This human instinct, this need for blame is visceral. Within hours an apology had been issued, afree that the individual ‘responsible’ was named. Poor man. There’s the blame guy. It’s his fault.

At this point the loop is pretty much closed. We have our man. Cause and effect are now rounded off in a neat little circle. Our visceral urges are sated. Everyone packs up and goes home. But what if you want to improve? What if the result of failure is more serious than a lost-looking Ryan Gosling? If improvement or avoiding loss of life is the goal then it is necessary embrace error as a fact of life and to understand the purpose of accountability.

Reading the PwC statement and the follow up reporting about hapless accountant-being-starry Brian Cullinan, it seems that PwC has thrown him under the bus because of his lack of prompt intervention when the error became obvious. The error is understandable; in 80-odd years of ceremonies something is bound to go wrong eventually. This was understood and it seemed that protocols (we would call them non-normals or emergency procedures) were in place for precisely such a slip.

And this is where accountability comes in: In complex operational environments many players are responsible for the myriad of time-sensitive tasks being carried out which form the end objective. Teams have to function in this way with many contributors playing their part. The job is too big for just a single megalomanic to control. But an effective team has to have a clear-minded and capable leader. This person has to also carry the can for the sins of the team. It’s their job to praise the team when things go well. It is also their job to take the hit when things go wrongly.

The business of leadership – we happen to call it command in the airline world – comes with lots of benefits. The captain gets to wear a fancier hat, have more stripes, maybe even earn a bit more cash than even similarly qualified colleagues. But the real job is to oversee, protect and guard the operation. Sounds great. But it means remaining answerable. Which in turn means maintaining a recall for your decision-making and acting in a thoughtful and considered manner even when events are moving quickly or in an unexpected direction.

The hat (or tuxedo) alone confers little value. It’s the brain underneath it that really counts. Response to error is as big a part of leadership as charisma, charm, influence or intelligence. Good leaders accept error and respond considerately and promptly to correct it. Poor leaders misfire or mistime their interventions or remain irascible and intolerant to human fallibility.

And what of poor Brian? Caught up in the moment with his selfies and tweets? Well, organisations have leadership personalities too. Let’s hope that his very public mistake is dealt with in a way that allows learning and improvement rather that blame and vilification. Perhaps after the media frenzy has calmed PwC might look at the wisdom of having two piles of envelopes, or at the roles and responsibilities of those waiting in the wings.

If you want to read more about error, decision-making and improvement, buy Matthew Syed’s excellent ‘Black Box Thinking‘ which is also available as an audiobook if that’s your thing.

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