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How Public Leaders Use Organizational Learning Practices to Change the World for the Better

“Over the past 12 years, U.S. airlines have accomplished an astonishing feat: carrying more than eight billion passengers without a fatal crash. Such numbers were once unimaginable, even among the most optimistic safety experts.” 
Wall Street Journal article, 4/16/21 The Airline Safety Revolution by Andy Pasztor.

This WSJ article is a tutorial in organizational learning and the practices of skilled public leaders who aspired to make the US airline industry among the safest in the world.  The hard leadership work in this kind of change process is always the same, facing the current reality openly and honestly, creating the shared vision for change, engaging the essential partners, staying focused and sustaining the focus and discipline over time. The good news for all of us they did it.

When Peter Senge wrote his seminal books The Fifth Discipline and the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook he combined research and theories from multiple sources to create the practice of the Learning Organization.  Thanks to Andy Pasztor who researched and reported this story for WSJ we can see how federal leaders we will never meet or applaud combined vision, persistence and discipline to create a safer airline industry for all of us.

Although the public leaders were motivated by a number of airline crashes that were well documented in the mid-1990’s the Public Sector Consortium encourages all Public Leaders to use the process described in the article to anticipate and resolve potential problems long before they are at the door.  

The first step in this revolutionary journey is almost always the voluntary sharing of information from across sectors and silos.  In this case it was the federal regulators who asked the airline industry and the pilots to share mistakes without fear of punishment.

The next phase generally requires leaders with a skilled capacity to deal with resistance, focus on vision persistently and build more alliances.  In this case they encountered strong resistance from pilots who worried about negative reviews and consequences.

They collectively took a systems approach.  Once they realized the patterns of mistakes that were made repeatedly they started to acknowledge the truth, talk about the mistakes and put a flood light on them.  See category marked Systems Thinking. Download the complete Public Sector Consortium Bibliography (click here).

Slowly but surely the benefits and results from this type of change process will engage more voluntary support and action.  One of the great outcomes of Learning Organizations and the people that lead them is the organization becomes self-sustaining and self-generating.

“Together, government and industry experts extracted safety lessons by analyzing huge volumes of flight data and combing through tens of thousands of detailed reports filed annually by pilots and, eventually, mechanics and air-traffic controllers. Responses led to voluntary industry improvements, rather than mandatory government regulations.” The astonishing safety record in the U.S. stems most of all from a sustained commitment to what was at first a controversial idea.  We have seen other organizational learning stories like this one at Federal Drug Administration and at Veterans Administration Hospitals but the results were not so easily sustainable with changes in administration and leadership.  

“Predictably, there were squabbles and threats to scale back or end voluntary reporting. Delta, for example, temporarily pulled out of voluntary arrangements, contending the FAA was reneging on promises to forego enforcement cases. Some high-ranking FAA officials who succeeded Mr. Sabatini angered pilots by complaining that voluntary, non-punitive reporting agreements sometimes amounted to a “get out of jail free” card for careless aviators. Such programs take time to build, “but one false step can really bring them down in a day.”

The issue of continuous change in public leadership requires much more national attention in the US.  Our hope would be a real analysis of the unintended consequences and the cost to society if we continue to do nothing.  

Over the next decade the challenges we all face as public leaders will require the skills and focused attention for large scale change across all sectors (public, private, and nonprofit). This is already demanding new ways to think and work differently together. Public Leaders skilled in the practices of Facilitation, Organizational Learning, particularly Systems Thinking, will be the essential key to whether we meet the challenges facing us.

Developing and Investing in Skilled Organizational Learning Leaders

Please feel free to use our bibliography (click here) which is organized in categories mentioned in this article, organizational learning, systems thinking, facilitative leadership, etc. You will also find examples of systems maps at this same link.  The maps were created by public leaders like you and may be of value to you. You can also join us for formal learning sessions by sending and inquiry to