My apologies for stooping to a media trick for attracting readership by using a tantalizing headline. Last week the Wall Street Journal felt compelled to comment on Micron CEO’s Steve Appleton’s death in an experimental aircraft. Executive No-Fly Zone attempted to point out that pilot CEOs were in mortal danger and so were the public company shareholders who depend upon them for management magic.
The quotes and statistics are entertaining, but rather than enlighten they seem to reflect an editorial bias against anybody who flies except in the back of a Boeing or Airbus.
“The desire to fly an airplane has been shown to represent one aspect of a sensation-seeking personality, a genetic trait associated with risky behavior involving driving, sex, sports and vocation, according to psychology studies. Such traits, along with substantial wealth, may explain ‘why you see so many [CEOs] are pilots,’ says Stephen B. McKeon, an assistant finance professor at University of Oregon’s business school.”
I always thought driving, sports, and vocation (whatever that means) were fairly common pursuits and billions of people participate in them. As for sex – my guess is more than just thrill-seeking CEOs and perhaps even newspaper reporters indulge in sex of some sort – although that isn’t specifically stated. My friends who are airline pilots will be thrilled to know that only company procedures and the FARs are saving them from such self-destructive tendencies.
Professor McKeon notes that substantial wealth is part of the equation that seems to go with the territory of being a CEO and being responsible for the entire enterprise. Perhaps I’ve missed something.
“Piloting small aircraft represents the riskiest type of transportation, according to fatality data analyzed for the study. Nor was Micron’s Mr. Appleton the first corporate leader killed in the cockpit” writes WSJ’s Joann Lublin. I’m curious about the statistic and how it was validated. We also don’t know how many CEOs were lost to illness, surgery, slips and falls in bathtubs, ladders, stairs, or while driving expensive automobiles that they ostensibly can afford. As for the sexual fatality rate, I’ll leave you to do your own research.
But enough snarkiness! Let’s acknowledge that flying light aircraft does have a higher degree of risk than sitting in the back of a ‘Bus or a Boeing or driving a car. The story made no mention that many CEOs participate in regular recurrent training to improve and maintain their flying skills. It also cited instances of experimental or ex-military aircraft that do not fall into the category of routine transportation. In fact, business flying, which is not a hobby but a practical solution to moving quickly around the country, has a very good safety record. But it’s not perfect, and as pilots we are well-served to remember that anything that moves five to 10 times faster than the average car will entail some increased risk.
Several of my CEO associates have repeatedly noted that they look for business-pilots to hire as executives. Top CEOs are good decision-makers, able to integrate large amounts of information quickly, are good students, inquisitive, and have a bit more risk tolerance than average. They also understand that nothing ventured means nothing gained. Guess what? Those are also the traits of most pilots.
The premise of the article was that companies might be irreparably harmed if a pilot CEO was lost in an aircraft – never mind all the other hazards mentioned above that are likely to be statistically much greater. Any board that bets the entire enterprise on just one person clearly doesn’t understand risk management or that no one is irreplaceable. Every company should have a succession plan – period.