What is clear from my work with powerful chief executives, especially those who rule by fear, is that variations on this dynamic can result in disastrous consequences. The fear of a punitive authority figure can lead to the stifling of independent thinking and sound judgment. If the pilot of the doomed Polish jet indeed felt he had no choice but to submit to desires of his powerful boss, then it was not so much "pilot error" (which suggests that the pilot was acting alone is his fatal mistake) as it was a case of a pilot acting under the influence of deadly group dynamics.
Non-lethal versions of this situation play out every day in the corporate setting. Managers who are terrified of being punished if they question the status quo or raise unpopular points of view will usually just clam up, even if their ideas could do tremendous good. While some may say that people should have the courage to voice their views regardless, it is psychologically naÃ¯ve to place all the responsibility on the employee. Never underestimate the greater power of group dynamics -- and of the inhibiting effects of powerful authority figures. It is up to leaders to have enough self-awareness to recognize that they may be inadvertently stifling free speech and dissent, and to alter their leadership style before it's too late. They rule by fear at their own -- and everyone else's -- peril.
Next time you're afraid to disagree with your boss's wrongheaded idea, remember what happened to the Polish pilot. And if you're in a position of authority, ask yourself if you are really creating an atmosphere in which your pilot can comfortably and directly tell you that he knows better than you.