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Asoh Defense: ‘Companies must empower leaders to hold themselves accountable’

(Editor’s noteThis is the second installment in The Globalists, a regular series by global managers discussing international management issues, innovations and solutions. You can see the inaugural post here.)

Corporate leadership accountability is a curious beast.

In the United States, CEOs are paid millions of dollars – up to three and four hundred times the average salary of his or her corporate minions – to steer their ships through the storms of competitive capitalism.

When they fail, they collect millions to go away via golden parachutes. Corporate titans get paid regardless of success or failure. It’s great work … if you can get it.

And this is not meant to pick exclusively on the Americans.

Across the Pacific in Japan, CEOs are compensated more in line with global standards (somewhere in the neighborhood of ten to twelve times the average employee salary) but are treated with an equally velvety touch when it comes to leadership accountability.

Unlike their American counterparts, who generally enjoy top-down command of company strategy, Japanese business chieftains oversee a hierarchical, consensus-building management style that manifests itself in a unique middle-top-down system.


Middle management spend months – or years – building a consensus strategy, which is then pushed upstream to the CEO for approval and then downstream to line management for execution.

As a result, no one person is accountable for any decision, whether successful or unsuccessful. When accountability is required, the initial CEO reaction is denial, continued denial, followed by admission, then an apology, a 90-degree bow … and a promotion to chairman of the board.

The current Bell Pottinger mess in South Africa shows that the lack of leadership accountability stops at no borders.

Across whatever oceans, as CEOs dodge accountability, responsibility for it tends to fall onto the leaders farther down organizations, such as former Japan Air Lines pilot Kohei Asoh.

November 22, 1968 probably started as just another typical day for Captain Asoh, who was assigned to pilot JAL flight #2 from Tokyo to San Francisco. He ended his day by mistakenly landing his DC-8 in San Francisco Bay, just outside the Coyote Point Yacht Club.

Fortunately, there were no fatalities or injuries on the plane or in the water.

The Crash

As is often the case in San Francisco, it was a foggy day limiting visibility to 1,200 meters with a cloud ceiling of 90 meters. Though not a big issue for most people, it does present challenges for airline pilots landing at San Francisco International Airport.

Asoh was a former flight instructor for the Japanese military and had more than 10,000 hours’ flight time in commercial airliners, including more than 1,000 hours in the DC-8 (the most modern aircraft in JAL’s fleet). His American co-pilot, Joseph Hazan, was also an ex-military pilot with over 10,000 hours of flight time, though very little in the DC-8.

Both were considered excellent pilots and quite experienced. The entire crew was well rested before the trans-Pacific flight.

In addition to the fog and cloud cover allowing visibility only below 90 meters, Asoh realized there was a deviation of almost 40 meters between his altimeter and his co-pilot’s. As such, he engaged the autopilot and initiated an Instrument Landing System (ILS) Approach. Unfortunately, neither he nor his co-pilot had ever landed a DC-8 via ILS.

This proved to be crucial as neither understood the autopilot was not capable of automatically aligning the aircraft to the runway.

Due to the confusing altimeter readings, Asoh commanded his co-pilot to verbally call out every 30-meter decrease in altitude. Unfortunately, the co-pilot neglected to do so.

After being asked to call out the altitude again, the co-pilot mistakenly announced the wrong data. Within seconds of breaking through the cloud cover, the flight crew realized they were too low (only 60 meters above sea level) and four kilometers short of the airport. Despite having radar data, San Francisco air traffic control did not radio JAL 2 to warn them of either their altitude or distance predicaments.

It was as if Edward Murphy himself were in the cockpit.

The Asoh Defense

As with any civil aviation accident in the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) rushed to San Francisco to investigate the cause of the crash. NTSB hearings have legal implications for those who testify. As a result, said witnesses come armed with a phalanx of legal advisors trying to diminish their clients’ responsibility.

When the official hearings began, the NTSB firstly asked Captain Asoh how his plane came to land in San Francisco Bay.

“As you Americans say, Asoh f*cked up,” he told his gobsmacked audience.

And with that, the Asoh Defense was born. More importantly, that’s what accountability sounds like – no denying, no finger-pointing, no excusing.

Instead of blaming Mother Nature for the fog; or the manufacturers of the faulty altimeter, or the mechanics for not noticing it; or JAL for failing to properly train him for ILS landings; or his co-pilot for panicking; or San Francisco air traffic control for not radioing him; Kohei Asoh accepted full responsibility as he was the ultimate person in charge of the aircraft – the CEO of his ship, so to speak.

Leaders preach the need for accountability. Those who accept blame for failure earn the trust and respect of their colleagues. In the face of failure, some deny all responsibility, some blame others and some excuse themselves with a litany of mitigating factors.

Very few accept responsibility full stop as Asoh did. Companies across the globe seem to realize this and pay lots of lip service to the concept of accountability, CEOs notwithstanding.

Companies must develop and empower leaders to hold themselves accountable. One would think Japan Air Lines would have been proud of Captain Asoh’s willingness to accept responsibility. Leaders such as Asoh become role models within organizations and create a corporate culture of accountability.

The Aftermath

Upon returning to Tokyo after the NTSB hearings, Captain Asoh was informed he had been demoted to co-pilot and reassigned to fly cargo flights for the rest of his career. His co-pilot was promoted to captain in 1969 and continued to fly passenger aircraft until his retirement in 1994.

These CEOs may be on to something.

Perhaps accountability doesn’t pay after all.

About the author:

Albrecht Stahmer is a Paraguayan-born German-American who grew up in the United States. He has lived and worked in New York, Miami, Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Tokyo and currently calls Singapore home.

Albrecht considers himself a management guru – bad management, to be precise, having worked for five companies that declared bankruptcy. These experiences have given him keen insights on management misalignment, which he writes about in this column.

As a senior trainer and management consultant, he helps clients solve talent-development challenges across Asia-Pacific.

When not musing on management issues, he scours the globe in pursuit of the world’s best bourbon bars.

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