“Looks Like I Picked the Wrong Week to Quit Drinking”

Steve McCroskey, a somewhat legendary air traffic control director at LAX in the 1970s, is never referenced in conversations about leadership and crisis management by MBA academics and executive coaches.  There are very good reasons why this is so.   

First, in times of crisis, McCroskey allowed his personal demons to get the better of him.  He battled addiction to drugs and alcohol and was famous for saying things like, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines” when facing high pressure situations. Not exactly the type of role model we look for in our leaders.

You may wonder how a guy like Steve McCroskey managed to stay employed in a high-pressure job like the LAX air traffic control director where so many people’s lives depended on him.  Well, this brings us to perhaps the most important reason he’s never referenced by leadership experts – Steve McCroskey wasn’t real.  He was a work of fiction.

Steve McCroskey was the name of the character in the 1980 comedy movie Airplane played by the late, great actor Lloyd Bridges.  For those who haven’t seen it, the basic plot is the plane’s pilots and passengers are stricken with severe food poisoning.  One of the passengers, a former military pilot with a bad case of PTSD, must land the plane in a violent storm otherwise everyone on board will die.  McCroskey is leading the team in air traffic control trying to get the plane down safely.

Airplane was a spoof of blockbuster 1970s genre movies like Towering Inferno, Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure that featured large, ensemble casts racing against the clock to prevent some horrific man made or natural disaster.  In truth much of the comedy in Airplane hasn’t aged well and is considered inappropriate or offensive today.  However, watching the movie again recently got me thinking about how our notions of effective leadership have evolved over the years.

When we first see him in the movie, Steve McCroskey is the prototypical “command and control” leader – strong, authoritative, decisive and seemingly all knowing.  He flawlessly synthesizes multiple threads of information simultaneously.  He is accessible to anyone who needs him.  He speaks in declarative sentences, giving direction crisply and firmly.  Bridges presents McCroskey as the indispensable man – the person at the center of the action upon whom everyone else relies on to do their jobs.

Who wouldn’t want to have someone like that around in times of crisis?  Wouldn’t all of us like to be seen as that type of leader?

Yet, as the movie progresses, we see how McCroskey doesn’t just like to make decisions, he wants to make EVERY decision.  He holds two phones, one to each ear, issuing commands to the ground crew and other controllers.  He barks out the grocery list to his wife.  He makes statements to the press.  His pace quickens in every scene, suggesting the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes cartoons, spinning around the control room in a frenzy trying to keep up.

The genius of Bridges’ portrayal of the McCroskey character is that he humorously exposes the flaws in this “command and control” approach to leadership, even before he resorts to doing ridiculous things like drinking or sniffing glue. 

Great leadership is not about organizing teams in such a way so that every person depends on the leader to make every decision.  Great leadership is about making people better.  It’s about creating a culture where norms and expectations are embraced and reinforced by every member of the team, especially in a crisis.  In short, it’s about empowering everyone on the team so they can perform at their best.

I saw another classic movie recently, The Hunt for Red October. Like Airplane, it largely takes place in control rooms run by strict hierarchical teams navigating life-or-death situations. Compare McCroskey to the model of leadership presented by the Soviet and American sub captains in Red October, portrayed by Sean Connery and Scott Glenn.    

Connery’s and Glenn’s characters are the picture of calm, cool reassurance.  Rather than operate at an increasingly frenzied pace like McCroskey, as the crisis intensifies the two sub captains seem to be in an almost meditative state, despite knowing that one wrong step could lead to war.  Their respective crews know their roles, understand the expectations for how they are to behave and are trusted to do their jobs. In such an environment, teams can operate freely and calmly, especially in times of crisis.

How do leaders (including those of us in leadership positions) in your company behave in a crisis? Is the leadership culture one of empowerment or command and control?  Are teams dependent on their leaders to make all the decisions?  Or does leadership empower people to make decisions without always asking first for permission?

These are critical questions all of us must ask, especially before the next crisis comes around.  Fail to do so and you could end up stuck in a command and control culture with McCroskey’s famous lament about picking a bad week to quit drinking feeling all too real.

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