Kaczinski Plane Crash: Pilot Error or Deadly Leadership?

Last Updated Apr 19, 2010 9:04 AM EDT

The recent tragic death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others in a plane crash in Russia was an unprecedented disaster for Poland. But some of the facts emerging from the investigation raise important, and alarming, questions about the dangers of leadership. The investigation is focusing on "pilot error" as the likely cause of the crash. But early news reports suggested that Kaczinski might have ordered the pilots to land in heavy fog, despite the horrible weather and an aborted first attempt at bringing the plane down safely. We may never know exactly what happened: what, if anything, was said between the pilot and his powerful passengers, and even (in the absence of a misguided order to land the plane) what the pilot might have been thinking about the consequences for his career if he chose to displease the president by not landing the plane under those conditions.

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 naïve 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.

  • Kerry Sulkowicz

    Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, advises CEOs, boards, and investors on psychological aspects of leadership in complex organizations. He helps companies with CEO succession, boardroom and senior team dynamics, human capital due diligence for investors, high-stakes hiring assessments, and the psychology of negotiation strategy. Kerry also advises large family-owned enterprises in the US and abroad. He is the founder and managing principal of the Boswell Group LLC, a consulting firm based in New York, and he has written columns on the psychology of business for BusinessWeek and Fast Company magazine. He is on the Faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute at NYU Medical Center and is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.