Lessons Learnt from Hierarchical Cockpits

A couple of years ago while reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell I was struck by the ideas in one of chapters.

In short, Gladwell spoke of how a strong Korean cultural hierarchy contributed to Korean Air having more plane crashes than any other airline in the world at the end of the 1990s.

Now this wasn’t, as he points out, due to issues you may expect, such as low quality planes or badly trained pilots. This was due to co-pilots being too scared (read: respectful) to speak up when they they felt the pilot had made a wrong move or hadn’t noticed a warning light come on.

This story came back into my conscious again recently while reading an incredibly long 5,000 word post by Julien Smith, a bestselling author of two books (I’ve not read the first, but I can firmly recommend the second).

Julien spoke of a meeting he had with a friend whereby they expressed regret that now they are both seen as successful in their own particular fields many people assume they no longer want or need to learn, and therefore never call them out or tell them they’re wrong.

He spoke of how, rather than question him—something which would have gone a long way to avert disasters in Korean Air cockpits of the late 90s—people often assume he knows all their is to know on a certain subject and don’t try to push him any further.

Thankfully, Julien pushes again this with the attitude that you should always be learning. As he puts it:

I’m starting to figure out that the way your time should be spent is largely like a pyramid, with a wide base of learning, with a smaller level of acting on top of it, which is directed by the learning, and then on top of that, an even smaller level of writing about it.

Don’t become distracted by hierarchy, one way or another. An unrelated, but relevant quote by Baz Luhrmann goes:

Don’t waste your time on jealousy; sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind.

Don’t fall into the trap of the hierarchical cockpit.


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I believe there are certain stigmas attached to asking for help. Learn how to overcome them in my new, free book: http://benjaminspall.com/book/

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Posted February 17, 2012 — Subscribe to keep up to date with my latest posts.

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