Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
Bookmark and Share this page


Remarks to the Regional & Air Cargo Carriers Association, 7th Anniversary Spring Conference, Chantilly, VA
Robert L. Sumwalt
Chantilly, VA

Good morning. It’s great to be back at RACCA. When we were together in Scottsdale last year, I spoke about establishing a safety culture. Today I’d like to discuss and amplify the most critical component of safety culture - leadership. As we said last year, safety starts at the top of an organization and permeates the organization. It starts with leadership.  

So, what is leadership?

Leadership has a different meaning for each of us, and can encompass a host of definitions.  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 I feel strongly that as leaders in the regional air cargo industry, you not only have the ability to influence safety, you have the obligation to do so. 

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 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 worked.

When I managed a Fortune 500 flight department, I believed that if I were 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, the notion of integrity is complex, but 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 a 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. It took courage to tell the CEO of our Fortune 500 company that, due to runway length, we would no longer serve an airport that had long been served under previous department management. As an airline captain, it took courage to refuse take off clearance, especially when others were departing into the face of that thunderstorm. 

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 a leader in the regional air cargo business. You are only truly successful when your team is successful.
Integrity also means doing the right things for the right reasons. Are you driven by the almighty dollar, or are you driven by doing the right things?

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.


In closing, 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 done your job by ensuring that your employees and your clients 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.