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Leadership Buried in the Snow

Posted on : 29-12-2010 | By : Frank Eliason | In : Customer Service, Leadership

Tags: , ,


This week many parts of the northeast experienced an unexpected blizzard causing massive trouble.  The cleanup is taking much longer than expected, especially in New York City.  I am sure over the next few weeks we will see a lot of finger pointing, and in most cases well deserved.

First lets take a look at this video that went viral yesterday (please note language many not be appropriate around children):

The video shows NYC workers who clearly do not care for the people they serve.  I know they will be the ones blamed, and I support that, but what I see here is an environment where they do not car about their Customers at all, and there is little accountability.  What would have happened if there was no video?  I would also be interested in what was going on behind the scenes.  Could there have been a supervisor demanding that they get the bulldozer back to work, no matter the cost?  It could be many things, but as I looked deeper at this issue it turns out the city is in the process of demoting 100 supervisors and losing 100 more through attrition.  Many are saying the union is actively having a work slow down based on these cuts.  If so, shame on the union for doing this to their Customers, and the people who could be the biggest advocates for them.  In my time in NY I have observed many of the sanitation workers doing their best to create the best city possible.  In fact in prior storms the city residents have usually applauded their work.  Not this time and that is sad because I am sure many are working very hard to do the right thing.  In this changing world the court of public opinion is key and it will impact how governments, businesses and even unions work.  The video you see above was viewed by hundreds of thousands of people in the past 24 hours.  I do not think it will help any of the parties involved.  Welcome to the connected world!

Now lets head over to the airport to see the fun going on there.  Yesterday I was horrified as I read this CNN article ‘Airline Passengers Unloaded After 11 Hours on the JFK Tarmac.’  Here is a video:

I should point out that the New York area airports are run by the Port Authority of NY & NJ and not directly related to the streets department in the video above.  I could not help but think about what it would be like stuck on a plane that had arrived at the destination for that amount of time.  On multiple occasions I have been on the tarmac at other airports for about 3 hours, and I know I was going stir crazy.  It is a little unclear as to the actual cause.  I have seen finger pointing to the airlines for not checking if a gate was available prior to taking off as well as statements about the lack of available Customs agents.  Customs has stated that they have people at JFK 24/7.  In my opinion, this is about neither one of those.  First the flight was permitted to land at the airport, so at that point the airport takes on the responsibility.  I am not well versed on how airports run, but I would venture to guess that a plane landing and sitting on the tarmac is the responsibility of air traffic control, as well as the leaders of the airport.  If I assume the statements of gate availability and lack of Customs officers are the true cause, I still blame airport leadership and air traffic control.  It is clear that no one cared about the passengers.  A leader is sometimes faced with difficult choices, and in some cases must break the rules.  In this case I am confident that individuals recognized how horrible this must have been but they were afraid to make decisions.  The rules are no international plane can disembark on American soil without clearing Customs first.  If I were the leader of the airport I would have contacted the highest levels available to me at Customs to find a solution.  As part of that conversation I would have proposed allowing them to disembark in another area, hopefully somewhat confined (but not remain on the tight quarters of a plane), until officers were ready to proceed.  If that was not acceptable to US Customs, I would have made the decision to move ahead if they did not find another solution in a reasonable time.  In terms of not having available space, there are 2 clear options.  First is moving planes in slots, but not actively in use.  I think it is safe to say that the airport has relationships with other airlines and could have pulled in this favor.  If this was not possible due to lack of pilots to move the planes, then I would have moved the planes closest to a terminal and then used stairs to disembark, or at least provide the option.  These choices would be difficult, and could have led to being arrested, but they would have been the right choices for the passengers, the Customers in this case.  The court of public opinion would have seen this as the right thing to do.

We are in a new world order, and in the past things like this would not be as open as they are today.  Leaders, whether they are union leaders, government leaders, or in business must be willing to make tough choices that are the right thing to do.  Trying to lead others by fear is wrong, but more importantly leading is sometimes making tough choices and partnering with others to find solutions.  I expect both these incidents will create change, but I hope people look at what was truly the cause of the incidents instead of just the people directly involved.