Lessons for business leaders From flight QF32

Captain Richard de Crespigny talks of how he and the rest of the crew were able to deal with their ‘Black Swan’ event – and the lessons for business leaders, not only for similarly unexpected and major events, but for everyday business too.

To any observer, the cockpit might have appeared to be in chaos. We had to deal with continual alarms sounding, a sea of red lights and seemingly never-ending ECAM (Electronic Centralised Aircraft Monitor) checklists … We were concerned, but our training kicked in, we kept our focus and remained logical and calm.

So writes Captain Richard de Crespigny in his award-winning book, QF32. It’s the real-life story of Qantas flight QF32 which, on November 4, 2010, came close to becoming one of the world’s worst air disasters. Shortly after leaving Changi Airport, Singapore, an explosion shattered Engine 2 of the Airbus A380, the largest and most advanced passenger plane ever built. However, thanks to the skill, experience and cool heads of Captain de Crespigny and his crew, the crippled aircraft landed safely, with all 469 people on board unharmed.

Not only is QF32 a fascinating read, it offers valuable insights for the rest of us, which Richard de Crespigny expanded upon in this wide-ranging interview with Better Business magazine. Captain de Crespigny talked of how he and the rest of the crew were able to deal with their ‘Black Swan’ event – and the lessons for business leaders, not only for similarly unexpected and major events, but for everyday business too.

On values and belief

Good leaders think, act and communicate from the inside out. You must start with a sense of core values and beliefs.” Captain de Crespigny said. Your core values and beliefs define why you do what you do, which will determine how you do it, how others will work with you, and what you expect as a result.

Excellence and confidence

"You aspire to excellence but never achieve it. Pilots regularly train in the flight simulators, aggressively pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone, practicing the hard things until we consistently master them. This special type of training is called ‘Deliberate Practice’, and when you do it for long enough (10,000+ hours?) you’ll gain confidence and courage that you might just be able to tackle events that you have not expected nor been trained for. Deliberate Practice develops a mindset of feeling ‘bullet proof’ and not ‘gun shy’ – a feeling of confidence, but never conceit.

Having confidence means that you are best prepared for the sudden and unexpected event, and when it does happen that you don’t get startled into the autonomic human response of fight, flight or play dead. Remaining confident whilst the unthinkable happens means that you will be able to keep reasoning your way logically through whatever is happening, without getting startled into a panic, without reacting the wrong way."

Risk, responsibility and courage

"You have to be able to understand and accept risk. You have to be able to identify it, rate it, prioritise it and then handle it.

That’s where Threat and Error Management comes in. This means you try and stop bad things happening. However if you can’t, if something is broken, then you’ll have to try to fix it. And if you can’t fix it, then you have to mitigate the failure. That’s why we stayed up in the air for two hours, rather than what many people thought we should have done, which was to just immediately take the aircraft back to the ground. If we had done that, I think we might have … not returned.

All people who shoulder high responsibilities should know the limits of their authority and be prepared to work to those limits. You’ve got to be willing to accept responsibility knowing that it could end in failure. Those who are given responsibility should also be granted authority. In aviation, our authority stems from federal laws and regulations that make us responsible for the aircraft, passengers and crew.

It takes courage to look the risk in the eye and accept the responsibility for that risk. If you win, then it’s a team win. If you lose, then it’s your fault – that is the cost of being a leader."

Letting go of ego

"Great leaders leave their egos behind. There is no room for ego in teams because you need everyone working and contributing together when the unthinkable happens. The best way to achieve cooperation is by establishing a level command gradient.

‘Letting go of ego’ is also vital because there just aren’t enough events in life that you can experience by yourself that will protect you from the unknown unknowns. You’ve got to learn from other people’s mistakes. You’ve got to be able to mine then combine everyone’s brains in the flight deck, to produce a shared mental model that will help you to decide how to resolve the unthinkable events.

Interestingly, the most successful leaders also have a paradoxical blend of an intrepid and fierce will coupled with modesty and even vulnerability. For nothing inspires trust in another human being like vulnerability."

Vision and delegation

"As a leader, you have to articulate a vision, showing what you are targeting and a path showing how you will get there. You then motivate and inspire others, allocating them their roles and tasks.

Delegation is critical, and that means delegating the authority as well as the responsibility. Trust is also vital, though trust must come with verification later. When you delegate, let them do their job. They’re going to be fully focussed on doing their job and taking risks. You are going to be fully focussed on leading and supporting your team.

Good leaders actually do very little. They delegate just about everything, so that they are not task saturated and ensuring that they’ve got spare mental bandwidth to think about problems, keep their global situation awareness and changing plans as required to achieve the desired result.

Micro management is a cancer for teamwork; it interferes with the people that you’ve delegated tasks to. You’re interfering with and distracting them and they think that you don’t trust them. In turn they lose confidence, interest and the team becomes dysfunctional. So in QF32 we were delegating lots of tasks, there was a level command gradient, open communications, excellent teamwork, and we worked together perfectly."

Full and Open Disclosure and Personal Guarantee

"The full and open disclosure and the personal guarantee worked for us, and I would recommend it for everyone.

I told the crew when we were in the air that anything we say to the passengers will be on YouTube half an hour after we land. Every person with a mobile phone is now a reporter.In these days of social media it’s essential that every company gives full and open disclosure during a Black Swan event.

We provided full and open disclosure to the passengers during and after the flight. In the terminal, I told the passengers what had happened, why it happened, what we were expecting them to do, and how long it would all take. We did this three times in three different lounges. Each debrief took 45 minutes, including answering individual passengers’ questions.

I also gave the passengers my mobile phone number. That was my personal guarantee. I said to them: ‘Qantas is a value-added airline and although we haven’t done a very good job today, I guarantee that we’ll get you home safely. So if you think that you’ve not been looked after or if you think that Qantas doesn’t CARE, then call me and I’ll fix the problem.’

The personal guarantee came from my heart, my core values and beliefs. I didn’t have to think about giving it – it was clearly the right thing to do for passengers that you have empathy and respect for.

Many other pilots thought I was crazy – but I don’t mind. For I am convinced that giving full and open disclosure and my personal guarantee engendered trust from the passengers and contributed to a happy outcome. The proof was in the silence, for after four years, no passengers have called me asking for help or to complain."

Every Employee is in Sales Evolve or Perish!

"Companies and their employees must continually change if they are to remain relevant and successful in our new connected world.

The Internet and social media has erased country borders and has flattened business hierarchies.

It’s never been more important to protect your company’s BRAND. CEOs and workers publish to YouTube, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram. Your company’s reputation can be instantly and irreparably damaged by one wrong message transmitted globally.

Resilient companies are able to promote and protect their BRANDs. This means having a sales culture that involves everyone throughout their entire organisations.

Every employee is now a sales consultant. They are now BRAND ambassadors that exemplify the company’s values and beliefs. The company BRAND must be showcased and monitored on the Internet and over social media. You must gather information, follow up leads and satisfy complaining customers.

Projecting your BRAND at a corporate level starts by ensuring that your customer knows WHY you are in business. Everyone loves to ‘buy’, yet no one wants to be ‘sold to’. And people don’t buy WHAT you do or HOW you do it, they buy WHY you do it. When your brand projects your corporate values and beliefs (the WHY) then it will attract the customers who share the same values and beliefs.

The key to protecting your BRAND at a personal level is to hire the right people who:

Turn up with a great attitude - because they love your company, the staff and their work (their WHY);
Present to the customer – be your brand ambassador; and
Make their day – do something so profound that the customer writes a thank you letter to the business owner.

These values are just as important to me as a pilot in an airline as they are to any other worker.

The ‘WHY’ motivated my actions during the QF32 event that are detailed in my book QF32 and that Tony Hughes (of RSVPselling) analyses in his YouTube video PR Lessons From Airbus Qantas QF32 Incident. I also recommend the book Fish! A Proven Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results."


QF32 is a story of resilience and team excellence, where thousands of people pooled their knowledge, training and experience, working in teams to overcome the Black Swan event that we had never trained for nor expected. I am proud of and thank every person involved in our incident, especially the passengers who remained calm under adversity.

QF32 by Richard Champion de Crespigny is published by Pan Macmillan and can be ordered from http://qf32.aero QF32 Book Cover

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