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Remarks to the SMU Air Law Symposium, Dallas, TX
Robert L. Sumwalt
Dallas, TX

Inside Out: A Pilot’s View of Serving on the NTSB

Thank you and good afternoon.  It really is a pleasure to be here with you today. I recognize and respect your expertise in the field of aviation law, and I appreciate that untold improvements to aviation safety have occurred because of your efforts. Although we may go about it a little differently, I believe we are all in the business of improving safety.   
I have been an aviation safety advocate for many years now.  Someone recently asked me how I became interested in aviation safety, and what motivated me to spend most of my days off working to improve safety. 

Several reasons came to mind. First, I was always a bit intrigued by – maybe even a little haunted by - the fact that the day I was born was also the same day that two airliners collided over the Grand Canyon. Many of you will remember that accident, the June 30, 1956 mid-air involving a TWA Constellation and a United DC-7.  There were 128 lives lost, and at the time, it was the world’s deadliest aviation accident. 

Those who know me well will recognize that dates have significant meaning to me. For whatever reason, I can often spout-off the date of a particular accident. Although I entered this life on the day of a major aviation disaster, as an airline pilot, I wanted to make sure that the day I departed was not synonymous with another aviation disaster. Therefore, my first priority was to raise the bar for myself!

Another reason is that at the young age of 27, I was promoted to captain. Before flying my first flight in the left seat, I received a letter from Captain Gene Sharp, Vice President of Flight Operations for my airline. I’ll share some of what that letter said:

January 3, 1984

Dear Robert,

It is a sincere pleasure for me to offer my congratulations on your promotion to Captain…

You are being entrusted with a great responsibility as part of your new duties and your Company and fellow pilots are confident that you will accept this responsibility with both dedication and professionalism. The decisions you make as a Captain must be appropriate from the perspective of safety, comfortable for the passengers and economic as to the efficiency with which you perform your daily work…

Another part of responsibility is leadership. You are now in charge and the way you lead and direct will set the pace for the entire crew…  

I am confident you will be successful in all areas.

Again, my congratulations and best wishes.

Very truly yours,

Captain Sharp was the person who hired me three years earlier. I remember interviewing with him and telling him that if he gave me a chance, I would always do my best. I recognized that I was young in both years and experience and I wanted, more than anything, to be successful as a captain.

I remembered what someone had told me – being a captain is all about leadership, so I decided to immerse myself in learning about leadership.

I realized that leadership has a different meaning for each one of us.
One definition I resonate to is from best-selling author John Maxwell. He says leadership boils down to one thing: “Leadership is about influence. Nothing more, nothing less.” 

I agree. That’s what leadership is all about – influencing others, whether in the cockpit, boardroom or courtroom.  So, how do we go about influencing others?

I have made it a point over the years to study those whose leadership qualities I admire, and then blend that into my own leadership style. What I’d like to do today is share with you three leadership qualities that have been most helpful to me - skills that I have used throughout my career as an airline pilot, a manager of a Fortune 500 corporate flight department, and today as NTSB Vice Chairman.  

Servant Leadership

The first is servant leadership. A few years ago, one of my best friends gave me a leadership book by best-selling author, Ken Blanchard. I had expected to read about trendy leadership principles like Total Quality Management, but instead the book talked about something called “Servant Leadership.”

Blanchard says that a good leader should serve his followers. Thus, the term “servant leadership.” This, of course, is opposite from the way that many see it. Some leaders try to exercise authority over the people they are attempting to lead. Not Ken Blanchard

Effective leaders realize that their role is to support those who work on their team. Ask any Marine officer what his or her job is, and I suspect they will tell you that their job is to support the infantryman who is in the trenches carrying the rifle.

Until I tried it, little did I know how well it would work.

When I managed the flight department for a Fortune 500 company, for example, I believed that if I was doing my job properly, I would be serving those that worked for me, not the other way around. Looking back, I truly believe that an attitude of servant leadership helped with team-building, which, in turn, allowed the team members to set aside personal differences and focus on building a department that today, truly meets world class standards. They did it. I was just there to help guide the way and practice servant leadership.


Integrity is the second leadership quality.

I believe in periodically writing down my values and trying to remain true to them. Last month I did just that and showed them to my special assistant, Dr. Katherine Lemos. She immediately noticed that “integrity” was one of things on my list and then challenged me by asking me to define it. 

I wasn’t sure I had a really good answer. We looked it up in the dictionary, but realized that a simple definition wasn’t going to be sufficient. Instead of trying to define it, we developed a list of key attributes that I associate with integrity. Consistency, Humility, and Honesty and Being Direct.


Consistency is important, especially for leaders. When you are consistent, others know what to expect from you. They know they can rely on you to do what you say, and will trust that you will follow through with your commitments to them, no matter what the cost.  

For me, consistency in the cockpit was essential. I always took at as a compliment to complete a trip and have the First Officer say, “Enjoyed flying with you, Robert. I always know what to expect from you.”

To help crewmembers to understand my perspective, I believed in laying-out expectations on the front end of the trip and then actually trying to operate that way. I figured it was better to tell them up-front how I wanted to operate instead of having them try to guess what I wanted.

Being consistent is equally important for me now in the boardroom. During my swearing in ceremony, I set the expectations regarding my philosophy on accident investigation.
I believe that in every investigation – whether in aviation, rail, marine, pipeline or highway – we need to take a systems approach. We need to look not only at the error of the front line operator, but potential systemic flaws that may have contributed to the error. For every accident that crosses my desk, other board members and staff alike know to expect questions from me that address these concerns. They know that this is a priority for me, and that I will hold to my perspective even when it may be an unpopular position.

Admittedly, it can be unsettling to be standing out there alone, holding on to an unpopular position. 

But one thing I learned came directly from the West Wing of The White House. The Honorable Andy Card was Secretary of Transportation during the George H.W. Bush’s administration, and he served as Chief of Staff to the President for six years in the current Administration. He is a graduate of my alma mater, the University of South Carolina and I remember hearing him speak to a leadership group in South Carolina. As you would expect from someone who has spent many years working closely with two US Presidents his speech was riveting. His most memorable remark was this statement: “Leaders have the courage to stand alone.”

And as an airline pilot, as an aviation manager, and now as NTSB vice chairman, I have found it necessary to occasionally stand alone. And I can tell you that it does take courage.  As a captain, it took courage to refuse to take off in a thunderstorm when other airliners were departing. There are many courageous decisions that pilots make every single day. And now as a board member, there have been a few votes for which I was completely outnumbered by 4 to 1. This takes courage.

Being consistent sometimes requires standing up for what you believe.


Humility is another attribute that I associate with integrity.  Two phrases that an effective leader will freely utter at the appropriate time are “I don’t know,” and “I am wrong.”  

To say these words is not a weakness – people actually respect your doing this. It allows others to realize that you aren’t a know-it-all, and that you genuinely need their help to solve something. It humanizes you. 

I also believe that giving credit where it is due goes hand-in-hand with humility. I always try to remember that most things I do are the result of a team effort.

In the cockpit, it is obvious that the success of the flight is the result of teamwork, of not just the crew in the cockpit, but of the entire flight crew, ground teams and maintenance personnel, and the list continues.

This awareness of the importance of the team is equally valuable in accident investigation, where investigators, party members, and agencies all must work together to develop a complete and meaningful investigation.
I believe the personal pronoun “We” instead of “I” goes a long way with integrity.  


Another important aspect of integrity is being honest - voicing constructive criticism or concerns to others directly. 

If you just stew over your feelings, or even worse, go and talk behind someone’s back, you miss a valuable opportunity to learn their perspective. Further, you gain respect when you go directly to someone with concerns them instead of going behind their back.  


In summing-up integrity, it can be said that wisdom is knowing the right path to take. Integrity is taking it.


The third leadership quality deals with vision. I feel it is important to establish a vision, communicate that vision and then motivate others to achieve it.

Katherine Lemos and I also spend a fair amount of time discussing how I can ensure my effectiveness as a board member. As you may suspect, there is a close link between leadership and effectiveness.

Katherine pointed out that individuals follow leaders because they believe those leaders have visions worthy of pursuit. Author John Maxwell says that people follow leaders because they believe leaders can take them where they want to go.

As you know, it is very difficult to follow someone when you don’t know where they are going. By clearly laying out your vision, you are telling people: “This is where we are going and I need your help to get there.”

So, how do you motivate others to achieve the vision? I certainly don’t know all the answers, but one thing I strongly believe is getting buy-in. Allow others to be involved in the process, let them know how much you appreciate their input. This gives a sense of ownership, a sense of being on a team, and establishes a sense of pride.


In closing, leadership is about influence. Your ability to influence others derives from your ability to practice servant leadership, maintain integrity, and to establish, communicate and motivate others to achieve a worthwhile vision.  

Those helping you to carry the torch will know that they can trust you every step of the way, that you will support them, voice concerns directly to them, and will follow through with your commitments.

Sure, there are other leadership qualities, but for me, these are essential underpinnings of effective leadership.

And although I began to form my perspectives on leadership when serving as an airline captain, I have found these leadership qualities to be extremely useful, regardless of my position or title.

And even though it may sometimes be lonely, at the end of the day, I know I have stood for what I believe in.  That itself assuages the loneliness.

I’ll be the first to admit that it takes a strong commitment to practice servant leadership, maintain integrity, and to pursue a vision. But once you do, it will be like having a North Star – one that your moral compass can always point to and lead you through tough decisions.

Thank you for your attention and thank you for your continued commitment to leadership.

Keep up the great work, safe travels and may God Bless America!