WW83 August 7, 2019: Robert W. Baker… A Conscious Leader Ahead of His Time

Wednesday Wisdom Series August 7, 2019

August 7, 2019

Here is your Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation.

Robert W. Baker...

A Conscious Leader Ahead of His Time


If we can focus our moral will on someone else's hurts, feel it as our own, then we can make an effort to relieve the pain. And this requires a uniting of the head and heart.

-Arthur Schopenhauer, German Philosopher, 1788-1960

    On July 7, 2014, American Airlines Chairman and CEO, Doug Parker, announced that groundbreaking would commence on the following day for a state-of-the-art Integrated Operations Center, named after former Vice Chairman, Robert W. Baker. Mr. Baker understood integrated operations, especially when it came to the integration of the head and heart in business.

    The Foundation's June and July Wednesday Wisdom articles featured interviews with a passenger and an employee survivor of the crash of American Airlines Flight 1420, June 1, 1999. While interviewing survivors of the accident, I reflected upon Mr. Baker's enormous contribution to survivor assistance programs in aviation and industrial tragedies in general. Before moving to another subject for this series, I felt compelled to write an article about Mr. Baker.

    Mr. Baker followed in his father's footsteps when he joined American Airlines in 1968. His father served the airline for forty-one years, while Bob worked there for thirty-five years. He held many jobs in his tenure at American and finished his career as Executive Vice President of Operations in 1989 and Vice Chairman in 2000. During that time, he presided over four fatal crashes and in doing so, ushered in the American Airlines CARE Team.

    My research on survivors of airline accidents began in the late eighties, and many of the lessons learned came from interviews with survivors and employee responders from crashes that occurred during his tenure. I spoke with Mr. Baker more than once toward the end of his career, and in my book Handbook for Human Services Response[1], I quoted highlights from a 2001 videotaped interview. Looking back at those comments today, it is no wonder that he was the first interviewee in my chapter on Conscious Leaders. In the following selected quotes, Mr. Baker summarized his perspective on support for those impacted by an airline crash.

    Our priorities have to be survivors, families, and employees. Only when you have that on the mend can you begin to worry about the legal implications of an accident. The legal consequences of the disaster must come after the people have been looked after.

    What we do initially is very important to provide the support. Getting people into hotels, getting them the clothes they need, (people) don't think of things like this, but we have to think about these things and provide them. And then (to) give them a contact to work with them during the entire process is where our CARE Team comes into play.

    While all of that is going on and our teams of employees are launched, the airline community has a big set of issues to deal with as well. Most of our people have given their adult life to working for the airline. We spend every waking hour of our lives trying to run an airline as safely as any airline in the world. We are constantly talking and pushing that approach at our employees. And so, when we lose an airplane it is a traumatic shock to the airline community.

    All of the employees want to know what happened. Someone in the media asked me what it was like to have an accident. I explained that it is the next worse thing to losing a family member for an employee to work for an airline that has had an accident. We have to deal with the employees too, because they too have to get closure. But they have to participate in the process too and it is a very long process.

    When I asked about saying sorry—a crucial part of showing heart—his response resonated with me. His response matched what leading plaintiff's lawyers have told me. Expressing sorrow is a necessity on the part of any company where a tragedy occurs in their workplace.

    I think it is critically important. I grew up saying I am sorry; I say it regularly to my wife of 35 years. It is important to relationships, when something happens to impact others and you are looked upon as having created the problem. And at the time of the airline disaster, it is the airline's responsibility. I think it is super critical.


Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Both are necessary…strong leadership with weak management is no better and is sometimes actually worse than the result. The real challenge is to combine strong leadership with strong management and use each to balance each other.

-John Kotter, Management/Leadership Author and Professor of Organizational Behavior, Harvard Business School


    Mr. Baker never attended Harvard Business School, nor studied organizational behavior in a university classroom. He intuitively understood leadership (leading people) and management (managing things). Just like the above quotes show how he understood the needs of customers, employees, and families involved in an air disaster. Interviews with CARE Team members gave me far more examples of his healthy management/leadership style than I can write about here. To make the point, I will continue quotes from that interview back in 2001.

    We all hope and pray that there is never an accident, but a big investment of effort and capital must be made to train people on how to deal with survivors and to ensure that these procedures are exercised and practiced. The corporate leadership team has to start that ball rolling. Then when an event happens it is important for leadership to make sure that the people who are trained and know what to do are allowed to do their jobs. The leadership team has to keep all of the interlopers out of it…they must be able to call on leadership for what else they may need to do their jobs.

    There are bosses who do not understand what the team is doing. Once in a while a manager may want the employee on their regular job before the assignment with the family is over. (Employees more than once told their managers to call Mr. Baker when they requested the employee to leave their CARE Team assignment and return to the normal job). I explain that the employee is doing something more important than their normal job.

    I asked Mr. Baker about the night of the AA Flight 1420 crash and how he successfully encouraged Manager, Greg Klein to respond as the station leader in the face of enormous stress.

    For people at airports it is hard for them to believe that they are ever going to be called out to work an accident. It puts them right out in front of everyone. No airline has the resources to get everything done until we bring in the other resources needed. The leadership team of that station gets a wakeup call in a big way. The tonality is super critical in getting to that leader…to help him or her is a higher order.

    One approach would be to say, "Look Mr. or Mrs. Station Manager, no get out there and do your damn job, get the book and follow it steps one through ten and do what you have been told to do and I don't want to hear any more about it." But I reject that type of leadership under any circumstances and it is particularly poor under these circumstances. So my approach has been to say in a very quiet tone to the station leadership, "look you are involved in a terrible situation and you don't have the resources to do it (respond)."What I am going to ask you to do is to think about the passengers, the survivors, and your employees; they need you. So, go out there and do what you have to do with those priorities in mind. I am here for you every minute in this process, which will go on for many years. I will always be available to you."

    And according to Little Rock Station Manager, Greg Klein, Mr. Baker supported him with follow up calls and visits until he retired in 2002. Mr. Baker knew how life-altering an airline crash could be on all who are touched—and he kept his word. Mr. Baker was always there for those who needed him. Mr. Baker died the year after he retired from American.

Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.

-Warren Buffett, American Business Man and Philanthropist

    Today, throughout the world, survivors, i.e., passengers, employees, and family members, not to mention those in leadership roles, benefit from Mr. Baker's legacy. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to learn from him and to share his wisdom.

[1] Coarsey, C.V. Handbook for Human Services Response: a practical approach for helping people, (2004)

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