What is needed to make a Great FAA Administrator?

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ARTICLE: Who Is Best Qualified to Lead an Aviation Company?


Joe Escobar wrote a thought- provoking piece about leadership of aviation companies. One of his primary lines of inquiry is the need for a CEO to have real aviation experience to be put in charge of an airline, a repair station or the FAA. As to that last entity, he made the following observation:

In the world of aviation, having aviation experience isn’t necessarily a requirement to lead. We have had FAA administrators that were not certified pilots or mechanics. Were they any less qualified to lead the FAA? I wonder how FAA inspectors feel about reporting to someone who has never turned a wrench or flown an airplane in his or her life?

It is true that the history at Eastern Airlines started with renowned pilot Eddie Rickenbacker and followed by Frank Borman, pilots of the highest order, transitioned to Frank Lorenzo. Hardly an array of talent, which neither proves nor disproves, that wings are a prerequisite to successfully manage the venture. Eddie Carlson at United or Bob Crandall at American, to name a few, suggests that cockpit or maintenance time may not be needed to manage pilots or mechanics.

The history of Administrators has run the gamut of the experience continuum from test pilots to persons with little prior history making decisions involving any form of aviation. It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of the head of the FAA; there is no “bottom line” against which to measure her/his ability to lead. Other indicia of how effective the top person has done are not easily defined or may be subject to any number of exogenous variables like:

  • the standards of judgment may not be a consensus choice of users as to excellence,
  • his/her record may be influenced by Congressional limits on funds or over surveillance,
  • the pace of action/inaction may reflect undue help from the Secretary and/or While House (or the obverse- may have benefited from good relations with the “supervision”) or
  • the achievements or apparent failures may reflect a strong/weak political and/or career staff.

Based on episodic information, good leadership as Administrator correlates with:

  • knowledge of aviation—when being asked to affirm or deny the decisions of the career staff, it helps to have an understanding of the activity being regulated. Soon after a new person is sworn in, it is not an unusual phenomena for a career executive to resurrect a personal pet project; some reference as to what works/does not work in aviation may forestall a bad idea. NOTE: there have been many able Administrators who have led well without years in aviation management;
  • ability to ask good questions—senior staffers present massive amounts of information; some Administrators felt that asking questions somehow demonstrated ignorance; much to the contrary, career employees find probing questions quite stimulating, sometimes the premise of the inquiry involves assumptions that were not considered;
  • ability to listen—leaders need not lead by instructing first; it is not presumed that he/she knows the answers; subordinates really appreciate when their ideas draw the attention of the Administrator and truly get energized when they hear the leader’s reasoning why (and why not) their initiative is accepted;
  • willingness to delegate — too many executives dilute their effectiveness by insisting that the “buck” always stops here; those who learn how and who to rely upon getting things done; establishing who can be trusted to do what when is something a great executive can either intuit or learn quickly;
  • knowledge how to manage the bosses—how and when should issues be brought to the Secretary; who on the DoT staff has the Secretary’s/Deputy Secretary’s/General Counsel’s/ Assistant Secretary ‘s ear and what is the best way to work an issue through the labyrinth of policy deciders;
  • comprehension of how bureaucracies and systems work—a common phenomenon is that a high-ranking officer from one of the services issues orders to the civilian staff and is shocked when it is not implemented; the career employees are used to systems that depend on written instructions and follow-ups; oral commands are not as routinely complied with as with military organizations. Follow-up matters are critical especially when so many of the senior staff have so many priorities;
  • understanding of the Congressional process/relations—being too difficult or easy in responding to the ordinary flow of requests from your friends on the Hill; when it may be necessary to say no and when a creative resolution to a request may be worth the risk;
  • conveying to the troops that you care—this may be a repetition of the listening ability, but an Administrator, who knows what goes on below the 10th floor, is more likely to inspire voluntary work by GS-10s in the bowels of the building; the human touch carries much weight;
  • charisma, energy, great ability to communicate (including the ability to repeat/reinforce core messages), humor, great memory for names and a host of other characteristics that create a bond between the leader and the 47,000 people in the agency.

This lengthy litany of attributes makes it clear that no single leadership type is the formula for an FAA Administrator/leader. What clearly is discernible from this set of descriptions is that the person selected must have a skill set that can motivate a very large technical organization with many tasks and inordinate scrutiny. This is NOT a position where a Presidential Executive Office can repay a political favor; the safety mission demands a candidate with the highest level of skills and energy.

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