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  • Writer's picturePeter McKenzie

The Dangers of Authority. The Frightening Lessons to be Learned from the World´s Worst Air Disaster.

Updated: Sep 25, 2021

A memorial to the victims at Tenerife North Airport, previously called Los Rodeos Airport. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

The Power of Influence

Do you want to learn how you have been manipulated and persuaded your whole life without even realizing it? Then read “Influence” by Robert Cialdini. It is a masterpiece, describing how humans are wired to automatically follow certain, unwritten rules.

These rules can be exploited to influence people to make certain decisions quite unwittingly.

“Influence” is the business book I have most recommended to my friends and colleagues. When I speak to people after having read the book, they nearly all experienced the same feeling that I felt upon reading it. Each of the six “weapons of influence” cited by Cialdini are incredibly simple, powerful and have been used (and worked!) on the reader multiple times in his or her past.

The book, apart from being a “must have” for anyone in sales, has another angle. Namely, how these “weapons” can be used or even exploited by anyone in a leadership position, for both good and bad. Good leaders should be highly aware of these techniques and guard against their misuse, both deliberately or unintentionally.

The chapter on Authority is the one that makes for really scary reading and is the “influence” that I want to examine here, as it relates directly to leadership. The chapter explains a number of experiments and real-life situations where a figure in authority, or seeming to be in authority, can extract quite unwitting responses from other people. There are numerous examples of how someone dressed in a uniform or having a certain title renders others powerless to resist the requests or demands that they make, even when the requests are completely unreasonable.

Cialdini describes one situation where nurses in an operating theatre in a hospital follow the instructions of the surgeon almost blindly, despite knowing that what is being asked of them goes against their own extensive experience or training. This is done simply because of the rank and authority of the surgeon and despite the fact that he or she are prone to make an error, just like anyone.

Cialdini cites an experiment where nurses were asked to administer prescriptions which were quite clearly wrong.

“The results are frightening, indeed. That 95 percent of regular staff nurses complied unhesitatingly with a patiently improper instruction of this sort must give us all great reason for concern…”

Here the underlying problem is fear. A person with authority invokes fear and submission in those who feel they are in an inferior position. A bad leader can exploit their position to override any possible curbs on their power. When ego comes into play, any leader may simply not admit the opinions of others or allow themselves to be questioned. Even an apparently competent leader may be unaware of the unwitting side effects of them exercising too much authority. Sometimes the results can be tragic.

The Tenerife air crash

In March 1977, the world´s worst airline disaster occurred in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The crash between two jumbo jets caused the deaths of 543 people. Investigators found that the incident was caused by multiple unfortunate factors, but crucially it could have been avoided if the psychological pressure of authority had not been in play.

Like many tragedies, the whole incident was due to a chain of unforeseen events. The Los Rodeos airport in Tenerife was a small airport not generally used by big aircraft like the two Boeing 747s that were landed there that day. Both were carrying holidaymakers to the nearby island of Gran Canaria. However earlier in the day the Gran Canaria airport was closed due to a terrorist group detonating a bomb at the airport terminal and threatening to set off more explosives.

The two large aircraft, one a KLM flight from Amsterdam and the other a Pan Am flight from the US were diverted from Gran Canaria to nearby Tenerife. Once there, both had to wait until the situation in Las Palmas was resolved. During this time, the KLM crew decided to use the time to refuel the aircraft with the idea that this would enable them to make up time for the return journey back to Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. This made the KLM plane heavier, something that was to be a deciding factor in the tragic events that were to unfold.

A number of other things came into play, namely bad communication between the air traffic controllers and the two crews, the arrival of dense fog at the airport on a day that had previously been spectacularly clear and the unusual maneuvers that these two aircraft had to make in order to allow them to take off on a shorter runway than would normally be the case for a jumbo.

However, the disaster could have still been avoided if human psychology, namely the power of authority, had not come into play.

On the KLM aircraft, captain Jacob Veldhuyzen van Zanten was one of the company´s best pilots. He was the chief trainer at KLM and had the power to issue pilots´ licenses and revoke them. He was known as “Mr. KLM” and was an excellent professional on all fronts. On the flight deck he was accompanied by two experienced pilots, First Officer Klaas Meurs, age 32 and Flight Engineer Willem Schreuder, age 48.

The crucial moment came as the KLM and Pan Am flights prepared for takeoff. The KLM aircraft had already taxied down the entire length of the main runway and turned 180 degrees to prepare to leave. Behind them the Pan Am flight had also taxied down the runway, but now had to move aside into left side taxiway off the runway in order to allow the KLM flight to have a clear run to leave. However due to almost zero visibility the Pan Am pilot had missed the first taxiway and was now moving down the runway to find the second exit taxiway.

Meanwhile, back on the KLM flight, captain van Zanten was getting impatient. He and the crew were facing a fine if they got back to Amsterdam too far behind schedule. Captain van Zanten advanced the throttles and the aircraft began to accelerate. No message had yet come from Air Traffic Control.

First Officer Meurs raised his voice. “We don´t have clearance.”

Van Zanten responded with irritation. “I know that. Go ahead, ask.”

Meurs radioed the tower and was told the route to follow after takeoff, even though the green light to go was not given. Crucially the word “takeoff” was used by the air traffic controller (something now forbidden in international flight communication unless takeoff is being instructed) and the KLM captain understood it was the clearance to leave.

This was a first vital moment in the exchanges between the crew. Meurs began reading the instruction back again to clarify, but van Zanten stopped him, curtly saying “We´re going.”

This was when the authority of the captain clearly pressured Meurs to keep quiet. He knew that the “all clear” instruction hadn´t been given, but the senior, now highly irritated captain imposed his powerful presence on his co-pilot and Meurs said nothing.

There was to be a second chance, however. The control tower told the Pan Am plane to advise when they were off the main runway and the Pan Am captain responded he would do so when clear. Flight Engineer Schreuder on the KLM flight deck heard this interchange and expressed his now mounting concern.

“is he not clear, that Pan American?”

Van Zanten replied with a bark “oh, yes” and powered the engines up.

At this moment, Schreuder could, and should, have spoken up. He knew something was wrong. Why did he not force the captain to abort the takeoff? An authority figure sitting alongside him, fear of retribution and a lack of feeling safe kept him in deadly silence.

Seconds later the KLM crew were to look out of the smeary cockpit window, through the fog, and stare in disbelief and horror as the outline of the Pan Am plane on the runway came in to view. Van Zanten desperately pulled back on the yoke and managed to get the KLM plane partially airborne, but the weight of a full fuel tank meant it couldn´t get enough height. The left side engine and lower fuselage of the KLM aircraft struck the center of the Pan Am plane, ripping through the center of the American aircraft.

The KLM plane stalled in the air and then crashed down, exploding into a huge fireball. All of the 248 people on board were killed. The back part of the Pan Am was crushed and also burst into flames. Remarkably 61 passengers and the entire crew of the Pan Am flight survived as they were on the front part of the plane furthest from the collision.

This terrible accident occurred almost 44 years ago and has been used as a case study ever since. As a result, important changes have been made to the way aircraft are managed across the world. Communications have been improved between Air Traffic Control and the planes they manage. Crucially, pilots and crews are given stringent training called crew resource management “CRM” which obliges captains to listen to all concerns voiced in the cockpit.

In the Tenerife crash, the power of authority, so well described in Cialdini´s book, was enough to keep intelligent, well trained and experienced air crew members silent, despite their fears of a potentially deadly outcome. They preferred not to face the wrath of someone in a superior position, which would have been a guaranteed, if less extreme outcome, rather than taking the risk and avoiding a less probable, yet far, far worse outcome.

Could this ever happen again?

In the aviation world, the question is, could the Tenerife disaster ever happen again? Well, Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller “Outliers” argues that it already has. His view is that the crash of a Korean aircraft in Guam, killing 223, was caused by the power of cultural forces. He argues that culturally it is almost impossible for younger Koreans to dispute the decisions of older, more experienced Koreans. In this case, the senior Korean pilot made a terrible error, and the junior co-pilot was simply unable to speak up and avoid the crash, even though he had evidence in front of him to show the tragedy about to unfold.

Gladwell has since cited other air crash incidences where the same forces have been at work. The cultural influences that Gladwell discusses in his book are the same forces of Authority that Cialdini wrote about.

Could these crew members have shown more courage? Perhaps. But it is easy to be judgmental from the comfort of a computer screen. I try to put myself in the position of those flight officers in their critical situation and ask, “what would I have done?” If you, like I, have ever worked for an authoritarian boss, then your answer may be as uncomfortable as mine.

Put simply, the power of authority is so powerful and engrained in people´s sub-conscious that it can too much to overcome, especially when decision making time is short.

First Officer Meurs, Flight Engineer Schreuder and the Korean co-pilot should be remembered with understanding and compassion as being human beings put in an extreme position where their subconscious overpowered their rational logic.

Lessons for leaders

The lessons here for leadership are clear. The power of authority is so strong that leaders themselves need be extremely aware of this. Many of those who lead teams are likely unaware of the extent of the power they hold over others.

The power that a leader has in their hands can intimidate even the strongest team member. Good leaders need to conscientiously make it safe for their teams to speak up and for their decisions to be questioned. They simply cannot think that this will automatically happen.

Systems need to be built and honest communication channels set up to allow opinions to be aired. Ultimately it is up to the leader to relinquish some power, to show humility, allow others space to voice opinions and to show respect by truly listening to what people say.

In most situations, the downside to authoritarian leadership and the influence of authority is poor decision making and sub-optimal team performance and, perhaps, a demotivated team. However, in the cases where people´s lives are in a leader´s hands, be it in a hospital or in the cockpit of an airplane, the results of excessive use of authority and respect for it can end in tragedy.

Over to you

1) Assess your leadership style. Are you too authoritarian? Ask your team.

2) Is your boss too authoritarian? Are you willing to stand up and speak out? Be honest with yourself.

3) Create safety for your team by listening to them. Try it in your next team meeting.

4) Get a copy of “Influence” by Robert B. Cialdini and read it (yes, read it!). Let me know what you think.


Influence - Robert B. Cialdini

Outliers - Malcom Gladwell

Tenerife Airport Disaster: How It Happened And What We Learned Mark Finley

The Fearless Organization - Amy C. Edmonson

In memory of those who died on that tragic day on March 27th, 1977 in Los Rodeos Airport, Tenerife

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