A leader is a person whose ideas and actions influence the thought and the behaviour of others. Through the use of example and persuasion, and an understanding of the goals and desires of the group, the leader becomes a means of change and influence.

It is important to establish the difference between leadership, which is acquired, and authority, which is assigned. An optimal situation exists when the two are combined. Leadership involves teamwork, and the quality of a leader depends on the success of the leader’s relationship with the team. Leadership skills should be developed for all through proper training; such training is essential in aircraft operations where junior crew members are sometimes called upon to adopt a leadership role throughout the normal performance of their duties. This may occur when the co-pilot must take over from an absent or incapacitated captain, or when a junior flight attendant must control the passengers in a particular cabin section.

Skilled leadership may be needed to understand and handle various situations. For instance, personality and attitude clashes within a crew complicate the task of a leader and can influence both safety and efficiency. Aircraft accident and incident investigations have demonstrated that personality differences influence the behaviour and performance of crew members. Other situations requiring skilled leadership may be rooted in the frustrations of first officers over slow promotions, or of pilots who are employed as flight engineers.

Both leadership and followership are essentially skills which can be learnt. The skills are similar but in the case of the follower they should be exercised in a supporting role that does not attempt to undermine the leader. One upmanship would be a classic case of inappropriate behaviour both for the leader and the follower.


In most companies, flight crews do not comprise the same individuals on a regular basis. Teams, therefore, have little opportunity to grow and form over time, and must function effectively from the moment they are formed, perhaps only an hour or so before the flight. It is important, therefore, to have a common understanding among team members as to how they will all be expected to work together as a team, from the outset. Company and operating procedures will cover the functions and actions, but CRM training is needed to show what behaviours and attitudes are expected and to help standardise across the company.

It is important for the team to establish openness from the outset, and for the commander, particularly, to demonstrate that he will welcome input from other team members, in particular the other flight deck crew. A glowering Captain who speaks to no one in the crew bus on the way to the aircraft is unlikely to set the appropriate atmosphere for the rest of the flight. Talking about a hypothetical situation on the way to the aircraft (e.g. what to do if a drunk and disruptive passenger boarded) may help to establish mutual expectations and encourage open communication.

There may be a large difference in age and experience between the various team members, with a younger, less experienced pilot being reluctant to challenge or query the Captain’s actions in any way. Similarly, there may be reluctance on the part of the cabin crew to ‘bother’ the flight crew with concerns. It is important to ensure that communication between team members is encouraged from the outset, even if that information often turns out to be non-relevant or not important, or a challenge by a co-pilot proves the Captain to be correct. Team members should not be afraid or embarrassed to speak up.

As can be seen from this example, not speaking up can have tragic results, as illustrated in the following cockpit voice recorder (CVR) transcript from the 1982 crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac River in Washington, DC.


Military Time- Local
CA- Captain
F/O- First Officer
TWR- Tower

15:59:51 CA It’s spooled. Real cold, real cold.
15:59:58 F/O God, look at that thing. That don’t seem right, does it? Uh, that’s not right
16:00:09 CA Yes it is, there’s eighty
16:00:10 F/O Naw, I don’t think that’s right. Ah, maybe it is.
16:00:21 CA CAM-1 Hundred and twenty.
16:00:23 F/O CAM-2 I don’t know
16:00:31 CA Vee-one. Easy, vee-two
16:00:39 [Sound of stick shaker starts and continues until impact]
16:00:41 TWR Palm 90 contact departure control.
16:00:45 CA Forward, forward, easy. We only want five hundred.
16:00:48 CA Come on forward….forward, just barely climb.
16:00:59 CA Stalling, we’re falling!
16:01:00 F/O Larry, we’re going down, Larry….
16:01:01 CA I know it.
16:01:01 [Sound of impact]

In this example, the First Officer notices that something is wrong with the engine instruments (highlighted in black), but the Captain disregards the F/O’s concerns and continues with the takeoff. In fact, the F/O addresses the issue of something “not being right” six times, with one of those six almost an acceptance of the problem. The captain, for whatever reason, justified those “things” as being “normal” and did not use any of the conflicting information offered by the F/O.

What the F/O should have done was voice his concerns in a more assertive fashion (as the message sender, his message was not being received). Typically, if something does not look right by the pilot not flying (in this case the F/O), an “abort” callout should be made and the pilot flying (in this case the Captain) should unquestionably abort the takeoff as per the takeoff briefing.

Would a more assertive F/O have prevented this catastrophe? Was the F/O’s fear of job repercussions a factor in not speaking up to a superior (and highly experienced) Captain? Would the captain have even performed an abort procedure if the F/O were more assertive? We will never know these answers. But in its purest form, there was a lack of communication.