Go Ahead, Say It: “I Made a Mistake.”

Bob Sevier

Bob Sevier

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Peter Drucker once said that today’s leaders love power and authority, but they hate being held accountable for how they use that power and authority. They have almost no ability to say, “I made a mistake.”

Everyone, it appears, except Captain Asoh.

It seems that a number of years ago Captain Kohei Asoh landed his DC-8 with 96 passengers and 11 crew members, about two and a half miles out in San Francisco Bay.[1]

The weather at the San Francisco airport was reported to be 300 feet overcast, sky partially obscured, and 3/4 mile visibility with fog, all above the airport minimums at the time of the accident. The aircraft hit the water slightly nose-up in about nine feet of water. Once the plane came to a stop, it started to sink, and the landing gear settled into the mud at the bottom of the bay. The water lapped at the bottom sills of the cabin doors.[2]

Asoh landed the plane so gently that many of the passengers were unaware that they were in the water. No one was injured and no one got their feet wet as the passengers were rowed in inflatable life rafts to the nearest land.

Regardless of how competently he did it, though, the fact that Captain Asoh, a veteran pilot with approximately 10,000 hours of flying time, landed his plane two and a half miles out in the bay irritated a large number of people. Shortly afterward, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a preliminary hearing to determine who was to blame for the debacle.

Captain Asoh was the first witness. With the eyes and ears of the world focused upon him—including those of private citizens, angry passengers, representatives of pilots’ associations, lawyers, newspaper reporters, and representatives of a variety of governments—he took the stand. The investigator in charge opened the hearing with the penetrating question: “Captain Asoh, in your own words, can you tell us how you managed to land that DC-8 Stretch Jet two and a half miles out in San Francisco Bay in a perfect compass line with the runway?” Asoh’s reply was, “I messed up!”[3]

Harvey writes, “… the words attributed to Captain Asoh clearly touch, in a very powerful way, the nerve endings of a lot of people who live and work in a wide variety of organizations. Asoh told the truth and we are starved for it. Captain Asoh expressed, in unequivocal, unambiguous terms, the truth as he knew it. Faced with circumstances in which many of us find that deception is the norm, he didn’t make a statement with the express purpose of misleading another person or persons. How refreshing!”

I recently participated in a strategic planning retreat with a very imperial president and his team. As problem after problem was outlined, I asked the president how he viewed his role as leader. His answer shocked the room: “I don’t view myself as the person responsible” the president said. “We make decisions as part of a team.”

His words absolutely stunned the room.

This was a president who had ruled as a virtual dictator. He micromanaged. He made decisions based on personalities and not principles. But when push came to shove, he would not accept responsibility for the decisions he had made.

He could have learned a lesson or two from Captain Asoh. I suspect we could all learn something from Captain Asoh as well.



Jerry B. Harvey, The Abilene Paradox




Actually, the phrase he used was a little more poignant.

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