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Remarks to the National Business Aviation Association 2008 Leadership Conference, San Antonio, TX
Robert L. Sumwalt
San Antonio, TX

“Can Bad Things Happen to Good Companies?”

The title of this afternoon’s session is “Can Bad Things Happen to Good Companies?”  The short answer is, “Yes, bad things can happen to good companies.”

Three years ago, I left an airline cockpit for the last time and grabbed the helm of a Fortune 500 flight department for a company in the nuclear power business.

In pursuing that career change, my final interview was with the company’s CEO. I honestly believe I was interviewing him as much as he was me. As you may know, safety is a passion of mine, and I wanted to know his views on safety before considering the job. I learned that one of the company’s core values was safety, which they integrated into every aspect of the operation. Safety, training and procedures were not only valued, they were considered critical to the success of the operation. I was so favorably impressed that I accepted the job offer. 
When I walked in the door that first day, I knew we could enhance the operations. We considered the many issues and prioritized how to approach these challenges.

For me, coming from an airline safety background, it was a no-brainer that our number one focus needed to be safety. I knew that senior management - our clients - expected the flight crews to be as rigorously trained, and aircraft to be maintained and operated in a fashion that was every bit as safe, if not more safe, than those of Part 121 operators. 

They expected an equivalent or higher level of safety. If the airlines trained twice a year, we needed to ensure that our pilots were as well trained and proficient as airline pilots. If the airlines carried defibrillators, then we needed to provide that level of protection for our occupants. If a new airline captain had to be on “high minimums,” then we needed to ensure that we met or exceeded that level of safety. 

The second focus was service.  I knew that we had to be as good as our competition in areas outside of safety, as well. 

I viewed our competition as airlines, fractional and charter operators, other modes of transportation, and even alternatives to travel, such as teleconferencing.  Not only did our schedules have to be better, we had to provide better customer service.

Finally, I focused on value.  I firmly believed that we needed to provide value for the company – such significant value that, if there were to be a change of management or a downturn in the financial health of the company, the board of directors would view the flight department as providing such significant value to the company that they couldn’t possibly shut it down. 

I felt that, if we could not provide this type of value for the company, we did not need a flight department.

Through diligence and teamwork, we implemented widespread changes. Later this afternoon I will outline some of these changes for you.  But even after I left – two years into the rebuilding process – the hard work continued.  Because of their hard work, just several months ago they became one of about 100 flight departments in the world to become IS-BAO registered.
Let me compare the flight department that I inherited with another. Like our company, their flight department had developed a culture of “get the passengers where they need to be,” despite the fact that senior management wanted and expected a flight department with a focus on safety. Both companies had the financial resources and senior management support to have world-class flight departments. Both companies were running core businesses in which they were among the best in the business, where quality, precision, safety and high-reliability were critical to their success.

These were both good companies – not ones that had management pressures to always get by “on the cheap.”

I think perhaps the only difference between these two flight departments was that they had an accident, claiming the lives of their top executives and family members.

I believe their accident was a classic case of bad things happening to good companies.
In both cases senior management placed an emphasis on safety throughout all other operational modes. But why not the aviation department? Quite candidly, I think it comes down to the lack of safety leadership. I believe the flight department management failed to provide leadership that could have safeguarded them to the maximum extent possible.

Leaders have the responsibility to lead. If you are not providing safety leadership to your company, then quite simply, you are not doing your job properly. 

Leadership takes effort. And, at times, it can be difficult. But, I believe that everyone in this room can be a good leader. We sometimes hear of “born leaders,” but the truth is, leadership skills are not something you are either born with or not. An Air Force Academy professor once told me if that, if leadership could not be trained, then there would be no need for the military academies. Indeed, they firmly believe that leadership effectiveness is something that can be trained, even for those who do not naturally possess strong leadership skills.

I believe we can all agree that strong leadership practices are excellent layers of defense in preventing incidents and accidents. But which leadership principles are most tied to success when it comes to safety in your department? 

Leadership has a different meaning for each one of us, and can encompass a host of definitions.  There are scores of books, and we have heard fabulous presentations this week on this very topic.A 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 to do or see the way you want them to.
And as aviation leaders, you not only have the ability to influence safety, you have the obligation to do so. 

The focus of my presentation today is leadership in the context of safety.

In a few minutes, I’ll present you with leadership practices that have been most helpful to me – skills that I have used throughout my career as a professional pilot, aviation department manager and today as NTSB Vice Chairman. We’ll then spend some time talking about establishing and maintaining safety culture in a business aviation department. We’ll look at leadership best practices associated with safety among top operators worldwide.Finally, I’ll provide you with a specific example of how to implement these leadership practices in a business aviation department. 

By the end of the afternoon, you will have a clear idea of how to use leadership to influence safety. What we will discuss is something that has actually been used to lead a corporate flight department. This is real stuff. It’s not just theoretical. I certainly don’t know all of the answers, but I do know that this worked for me and I believe it can be helpful for you, as well.  

I have made it a point over the years to study those whose leadership qualities I admire and then blend into my own leadership style. There really are several important leadership qualities, but these are the top three that have been most helpful to me.

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 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 aviator what his or her job entails, and 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 Fortune 500 flight department, I believed that if I was doing my job properly, I would be serving those who worked for me, not the other way around. I’ll have to admit that I took over a department with team-building challenges. 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. Integrity is one of these values. Although, like leadership, integrity is complex, there are several attributes that I most associate with this construct.

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

Having courage is another.  A leader will hold to their 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. 

According to The Honorable Andy Card, former Secretary of Transportation during the George H.W. Bush administration, and more recently, Chief of Staff to the President for six years in the current Administration: “Leaders have the courage to stand alone.”

And I can tell you that it does take courage. In my current role, there are competing interests. Often, no matter how I decide to vote, someone is not going to like it.

When I was managing the flight department, I can tell you that it took courage to make personnel decisions. It took courage to stake the entire department’s bonus on the conviction that standardization was imperative and if we were not standardized, then we would not receive our bonus.

Having courage also involves voicing concerns or constructive criticism to others directly, versus going behind their backs, or just stewing over the situation.

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

It is not a weakness – people actually respect this. It allows others to realize that you are aware that you don’t know-it-all, and that you genuinely need their help to solve something.  It is humanizes you. 

Having humility also involves remembering that most things we accomplish are the result of a team effort.

For example, we aIl realize that the success of a flight is the result of teamwork - not of just the cockpit crew - but of the entire ground crew, maintenance personnel, schedulers, and so on.

This awareness of the importance of the team is equally important as an aviation department leader. You are only truly successful when your team is successful.
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.

My vision for our flight department was that we would become a world-class aviation department that provided significant value to the corporation. I told them that we would achieve IS-BAO registration by my third anniversary.  From my first day on the job, I made certain that everyone knew my vision. We discussed it during our very first staff meeting and in each meeting thereafter. We printed it and hung it on the wall in the office. We mapped out a plan to get there.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure that, at first, anyone even knew what I meant. But at least they knew there was a vision, and that together we would work on it.

Author John Maxwell says that, “people follow leaders because they believe leaders can take them where they want to go.” My special assistant, Dr. Katherine Lemos, recently amplified that, saying that, “people follow leaders because they believe those leaders have visions worthy of pursuit.”

What is the vision that guides you in your professional life? Do you know? Equally as important, do those on your team clearly know your vision? Do they know your expectations?

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? One thing I strongly believe is getting buy-in. Allow others to be involved in the process, and let them know how much you appreciate their input. This gives them a sense of ownership, a sense of being on a team, and establishes a sense of pride.


So, back to the question: Can bad things happen to good companies? Absolutely they can.

But, through effective leadership, you build defenses to ensure that when you put your head on the pillow at night, you know you have done all you possibly can. You know you have earned your paycheck by ensuring that the people who hired you are getting the absolute best they deserve.
Leadership is about influence. Your job as aviation leaders, is to use your influence to help ensure that bad things don’t happen to your good company.

I’ll be the first to admit that it takes a strong commitment for practicing servant leadership, maintaining integrity, and establishing, communicating and achieving a worthwhile vision.

But, once you have these, it will be like having a North Star – one that your moral compass can always point to and lead you through tough decisions.

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

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