October 2017
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EXPLORING COMMUNICATION IN AN ACCOUNT OF AN AIRLINE CAPTAIN'S LEADERSHIP PERFORMANCE
Kevin Knight, Kanda University of International Studies, Chiba, Japan

In view of the focus on aviation English in this edition of ESP News, I decided to adapt and replicate content from my TESOL publications that apply to research and program development related to aviation English. By doing so, I aim to complement what has been written by Mathews and Roberts in their articles in this issue. Specifically, I argue that professional communication research is valuable for English for specific purposes (ESP) practitioners and share two stories of aviation English from my own experience.

1. The Relevance of Professional Communication Research

In Knight (2014b), I wrote about the importance of learning about professional communication and shared a publication on business discourse that I had found to be valuable in my own research (Bargiela-Chiappini, Nickerson, & Planken, 2013). The three authors of that volume define “business discourse” as follows:

Business discourse is all about how people communicate in talk or writing in commercial organizations in order to get their work done. In this book, we will view business discourse as social action in business contexts. We will discuss the work of researchers (and practitioners) primarily interested in the investigation of spoken and written communication in general and language in particular in business settings, most often in corporate settings. We will be looking at (a) what business discourse research has told us about how people in business organizations achieve their organizational and personal goals using language, (b) how the findings of that research have been applied in teaching and training materials, and (c) how to go about doing business discourse research. (p. 3)

If our goal as ESP practitioners is to better understand communication for the purpose of creating training programs, we should be looking at resources such as the volume by Bargiela-Chiappini et al. (2013).

2. An Account of the Leadership of an Airline Captain

In connection with exploring discourse, we need to be interacting with the professionals who use the discourse that our students need to learn. In such interactions, we need to focus on professional communication. In Knight (2015), I wrote:

In order to enhance my ability to train professionals in specific fields, I am always looking for examples of outstanding professional communication. In this connection, have you ever read an article that focuses on the actions of professionals (such as company presidents, doctors, or lawyers) but not on their specific communication? One such article is titled What Air Crash Investigations Didn’t Tell You About QF32 (Airbus A380) by Hughes (2014). The article describes the actions of various professionals, but it does not answer one question to my satisfaction:

How did the various professionals communicate to achieve the results described in the article?

Although I did not find many examples of specific communication that were used to get the job done, I did find much content that could be used to teach my students how to tell a good success story in a job interview.

To prepare my students for behavioral questions in job interviews, I have used the following frameworks for talking about accomplishments (Knight, 2014a):

  • “S.T.A.R. (Situation/Task or Problem/Action/Result)
  • C.A.R. (Challenge/Action/Result)
  • P.A.R. (Problem/Action/Result)”

Such interview preparation takes the form of ESP training when my students have immediate needs for such communication skills. In view of the C.A.R. framework, the following extracts from Hughes’ article that I shared in Knight (2015) can be labeled with Challenge, Action, and Result:

Challenge

  • “On November 4th, 2010, Captain de Crespigny was in command of QF32 flying from Singapore to Sydney….At 7,400 feet during climb-out there was a catastrophic failure of an inboard Rolls-Royce engine resulting in a very rare uncontained explosion. Shrapnel flew out at supersonic speed crippling control systems running along the Q380’s left wing leading edge, peppering the fuselage, invading the underbelly, puncturing two wing fuel tanks in at least ten locations and wreaking havoc with 21 of the 22 aircraft’s systems. In my opinion it was far more serious, and far closer to being a disaster, than anyone has been willing to acknowledge…”

Action

  • “During the incident everyone knew their roles, and every issue and task was dealt with calmly and professionally. The First Officer, Matt Hicks, dealt with well over one hundred alarms and checklists while Captain de Crespigny concentrated on flying the aircraft, monitoring his First Officer, keeping his situation awareness, weighing his options and laying strategies to complete the flight.”

  • “Captain de Crespigny knew that height gave them more time and options so he told the flight deck team he was initiating a climb. ‘No!’ they all said in unison. It was the only time in the entire flight that there was any discord – teamwork in action. They were in stable level flight and they did not have all the information about what was wrong… leave everything as it is. No ego, just teamwork. Captain de Crespigny simply said, ‘okay.’”

Result

  • “Rather than leave it to PR and customer service people, he took charge and when every passenger was safely in the terminal he went and spoke to them saying: ‘When you fly Qantas you’re flying with a premium airline and you have every right to expect more. An army of Qantas staff are right now finding you hotel rooms and working out how to get you to Sydney as soon as possible. But right now I want you to write down this number – it’s my personal mobile phone and I want you to call me if you think Qantas is not looking after you or if you think that Qantas does not care.’”

Some of the details in these extracts can be used to explain how Captain de Crespigny displayed leadership during the crisis. The Result extract in particular was something that I could analyze, discuss, and practice with my students in an organizational leadership seminar and with adult learners in a business English class.

3. The S.T.A.R. Framework in a Leadership Account of an Airline Ground Staff Member

In Knight (2017), I write of a student in one of my classes for unemployed adult learners at Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. She had a leadership story that could be divided into the following four parts of the S.T.A.R. framework. (The following is my adaptation of that story for this article.)

  1. Situation: It was a cold day in winter.

  2. Task/Problem: The flights at an airport had been cancelled. Many passengers were waiting in front of the check-in counter.

  3. Action: The student took care of the passengers.

  4. Result: The passengers could eventually board flights.

Without certain details, the story above is not as impressive as it could be. The following details were elicited from the student and added to her story.

  • It was the coldest day in Japan. It was snowing. All of the airplanes were grounded because they were frozen. There were only two machines in the airport that could thaw out an airplane. They could only take care of one airplane at a time.

  • There were 150 passengers in front of the ticket counter. There was not transportation in or out of the airport so the passengers could not go to a hotel.

  • The student’s manager was not taking any action to take care of the 150 passengers.

  • At the airport, the student had worked in the food service section prior to working at the check-in counter. Accordingly, she took the initiative to obtain meals and blankets and pillows for all of the passengers.

  • The student also organized her other two colleagues (i.e., not the manager) at the check-in counter so the three ground staff were each in charge of caring for 50 of the 150 passengers.

  • After two days, the passengers could board flights. The situation ended without any problems because of the initiative of the student to take a leadership role.

Before the details of the story were elicited from the student in class, she believed that she did not have a leadership story to tell. After this story was shared with her classmates, her level of confidence increased dramatically because she (and others) recognized her impressive actions as a leader.

4. Comments of Captain de Crespigny

Captain de Crespigny, after reading Knight (2015), posted the following comments:

Thanks for asking the questions above because I think that they are VERY important. To fully appreciate the answers to your questions, you need to analyse fear, dread, startle effect, panic on the human condition so that you can generate empathy for your customer. Then you need to know why the WHY is more important than the HOW (SOPs [standard operating procedures]) or WHAT (safety). When you understand my WHY, the rest falls into place. Readers of my book (QF32) hopefully get the WHY. I’m [sic] writing more on leadership and crisis management in a book that comes out next year.”

I was very pleased to read these comments, and I think that Hughes had the right idea. He took the time and effort to interview Captain de Crespigny. As ESP practitioners, we should be encouraging our students to find models of communication for their professional activities.

References

Bargiela-Chiappini, F., Nickerson, C., & Planken, B. (2013). Business discourse (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hughes, T. (2014, December 26). What air crash investigations didn't tell you about QF32 (airbus A380). LinkedIn. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/what-air-crash-investigations-didnt-tell-you-qf32-airbus-hughes

Knight, K. (2014a). An ESP story about interview training [Blog post]. TESOL Blog. Retrieved from http://blog.tesol.org/an-esp-story-about-interview-training-2/

Knight, K. (2014b). Business discourse (2nd edition): Relevant for ESPers worldwide [Blog post]. TESOL Blog. Retrieved from http://blog.tesol.org/business-discourse-2nd-edition-relevant-for-espers-worldwide/

Knight, K. (2015). Analyzing communication in an article about professional performance [Blog post]. TESOL Blog. Retrieved from http://blog.tesol.org/analyzing-communication-in-an-article-about-professional-performance/

Knight, K. (2017, February). The role of leadership discourse research in interview training success. ESP News. Retrieved from http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolespis/issues/2017-01-26/5.html


Kevin Knight (PhD in linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is associate professor in the Department of International Communication of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. His research interests include leadership conceptualization and development, ESP, and professional communication (see the Leadership Connection Project).

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