Britain’s bullying prime minister is bad news

“There are signs the general public is not yet too worried about the emerging picture of their prime minister’s working methods,” wrote the Irish Times this week in response to allegations that surfaced last weekend that an anti-bullying hotline had received calls from exasperated members of British prime minister Gordon Brown’s staff, tired of their boss’s belligerent behaviour.

Gordon Brown is hardly the first leader to be a crummy boss. French president Nicolas Sarkozy is also notorious for his short temper, calling his press secretary an “imbecile” on American television. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, Australia’s Paul Keating and the U.S.A.’s Bill Clinton were also known for their volcanic tempers (though Clinton is said to have rarely held a grudge).

Canada’s Stephen Harper, widely acknowledged to be a “control freak”, is likely no joy to work for, either.

The British prime minister might well have plenty to be irritable about. He’s heading into an election expected to be held this spring which he will most likely either lose completely or, at best, maintain a tenuous hold on power at the head of a minority government. The job of prime minister is not conducive to maintaining a pleasant disposition either. Win or lose, Brown will spend the remainder of his life under 24-hour bodyguard protection — and if he wins, he’ll have no escape from the rigours of the premiership, which is easily an 80-hour-a-week job.

There is good reason, though, for the public to be concerned about their leaders’ working methods. Elected officials rely on their colleagues to give them the information they need to make good decisions, even if it means telling them things they don’t want to hear.

An explosive temper can lead a prime minister’s aides to either understate the severity of a matter, or to simply keep their mouths shut and pray that they don’t get stuck with the buck.

A vivid example of what can go wrong when a bad-tempered person is in command and not being corrected by fearful colleagues who see something happening that shouldn’t be happening played itself out 33 years ago not in the corridors of power, but on a tropical island off the coast of Africa.

On Mar. 27, 1977, two Boeing 747s — one belonging to the U.S. carrier Pan Am, the other to Dutch carrier KLM — were diverted to Tenerife in the Canary Islands after a terrorist’s bomb went off at their original airport.

After a long delay, both aircraft were given permission to proceed to their original destinations. Tenerife’s airport was never intended to handle the volume of traffic they were experiencing that afternoon, however, forcing controllers to devise a solution.

As fog descended on the airport, it was decided that the KLM jumbo jet would taxi down the main runway, do a 180-degree turn at the end, and wait until the Pan Am following behind had pulled off to the side of the runway before taking off.

On the KLM 747, Captain Jacob van Zanten was growing increasingly irritated at the delay and the possibility that he might end up stuck in the Canary Islands instead of returning home to Amsterdam that night. He was one of KLM’s most senior pilots, and he had a short temper that often intimidated his crew.

At the end of the runway — likely to the shock of his crew — Van Zanten started his take-off run without clearance from controllers, or even the assurance that the runway was clear.

His First Officer, Klaas Meurs, informed the captain that they there was no clearance, causing Van Zanten to stop the take-off and to brusquely tell Meurs to get clearance.

Once Meurs obtained clearance to follow a specific route to their destination — but before he could ask for clearance to take off — Van Zanten again started the take-off run.

Having called out a senior captain once, Meurs might have felt reluctant to do it again. Analysis of the cockpit voice recorder would show that, this time, both Meurs and Flight Engineer Willem Schreuder remained silent as the captain once again started his take-off run, without clearance and in a thick fog.

Then, Schreuder heard the tail end of a garbled radio transmission, in which the Pan Am crew promised controllers that they would let them know as soon as they had exited the runway.

Finally, Schreuder spoke up: “Is hij er niet af, dan?”, he asked in Dutch. (“Is he not off, then?”)

“Wat zeg je?”, barked the captain. (“What did you say?”)

“Is hij er niet af, die Pan American?!?”, Schreuder repeated, a little more urgently this time. (“Is he not off, that Pan American?!?”) 

“Jawel!”, the captain replied impatiently. (“Oh yeah!”)

Neither the first officer nor the flight engineer pushed the captain any further on this point.

Seconds later, Van Zanten saw the Pan Am jet’s lights directly ahead of him in the fog. Now traveling too fast to stop the aircraft, Van Zanten’s only hope was to get his aircraft in the air.

He did manage to get the KLM jumbo off the ground, but not high enough. It literally flew into the Pan Am jet, killing 583 people, including everyone on the KLM jet.

The consequences of bullying

Tenerife forced airlines to take a second look at the traditional power structure within the cockpit, where the captain gave the orders and did not welcome being second-guessed by his subordinates. Indeed, Tenerife was neither the first nor the last accident caused at least in part by a captain who had intimidated subordinates into keeping their doubts to themselves.

Such accidents have become much rarer, though, due to the fact that pilots are trained that bullying and intimidation have no place in the cockpit because it escalates the risk of a catastrophic error.

Politicians might work out of offices instead of airplanes, where the consequences of an error might be less devastating than the death of several hundred people. When you consider the fatigue that many prime ministers, presidents, premiers and mayors must be struggling with, however, along with the intimidation factor and the hierarchical nature of the political profession, the only thing that should come as a surprise is that our leaders don’t make more mistakes than they already do.

A well-run society needs a political system where those who work in close contact with the powerful can feel comfortable about speaking up if they see something happening that shouldn’t be happening.

That is why people should be worried about their prime ministers’ working methods, wherever they might live. And those of their presidents, premiers, governors and mayors as well.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

One Response to Britain’s bullying prime minister is bad news

  1. Ketty Nielsen says:

    Excuse me, but your post about the Tenerife Disaster includess way too many mistakes and myths.

    First of all, Jacob van Zanten certainly wasn’t a bad-tempered person. I have read interviews with people who knew him in real life, and all of them describe him as a calm and a nice man.

    I do not deny the fact he has done a very unfortunate mistake that day, but slander is not the way, I’m afraid. The movie “Crash Of The Century” is full with lies and is NOT a documentary, but a drama which is based on real story.

    And I actually heard some snippets from the real CVR recordings. When vZ asked his flight engineer “what do you say”, it was far from “barking”. It was said in a perfectly normal intonation, so no “barking” here 😉

    Best Regards

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