BA Turbulence: Sick workers … sick leadership?

January 22, 2007

British Airways is facing a potentially damaging Union dispute, with strike action threatened over the coming weeks. The dispute contrasts the newer participative leadership and classical industrial relations battles. Increasingly, sick workers are being associated with sick leadership stories, as Walmart is also discovering.

The context is a familiar one. BA operates in one of the most competitive global market sectors. The business pressures for the traditional carriers have been accentuated by the success of cut-price rivals, increased political interest in the ‘carbon footprint’ of air travel, operating costs, and costs of financing pension arrangements.

Over some unpleasantly bumpy progress in recent years, the company has been addressing these problems. There have been shifts in leadership, but the one-time tag The world’s most popular airline now seems to have distinctly ironic echoes.

Indicators of the company’s concerns have been recent negotiations to come to terms with its pension commitments, and efforts to address productivity losses resulting from what the company attributes to excessive levels of absenteeism.

The sickness sickness

In recent years, absenteeism has been studied both from economic and behavioural standpoints. The former approach draws on traditional industrial relations measures of ‘sickies’, and is inclined to focus on days off per year per employee. The vocabulary is that of malingerers, and of a sickness culture. The behavioural standpoint draws on the more modern human resource approach.

For many workers (and not a few academic researchers), this is regarded as a relabelling rather than a revolution in the culture of the workplace. What should be noted in this case is that BA has been a leading advocate of workplace participation, and motivational methods for many years. It has invested heavily in its management and leadership training .

Yet, the current debate still has echoes of an older confrontational ‘us versus them’ culture.

Sick workers, sick buildings … sick leadership?

There has been various non-economic explanations of what was simply lumped under managerial terms of malingering and absenteeism. Ideas of psychologically damaging environments (sick buildings syndrome) have been studied. ‘Sick buildings’ may have clear and identifiable dimensions. but may also be more as symptom of wider issues. Sick buildings may be an indicator of sick jobs.

This at some level will connect with organizational leadership. In time, the matter will become a threat to effective operation.

The PR difficulties of Walmark at present might be cited in this respect. Its leadership decisions are monitored closely and discussed through various pressure groups via the internet.

This week, for example, the company introduced some leadership changes. One headline was ‘Walmart promotes executive who warned of sick workers’.

BA and Walmart alike increasingly have to consider the dynamics not just of sick workers, but what in their actions can be accused of being sick leadership.


VW Leadership travails: A Shakespearean drama

January 17, 2007

125px-shakespeare2.jpgThe Volkswagen organisation has faced downsizing challenges in common with the majority of auto-manufacturers in recent years. As these changes unfolded, the company became embroiled in leadership battles familiar to students of the dramas of William Shakespeare. The German business governance system also has to be studied to understand some of the key contextual factors involved.

Update January 27th 2007

The original filing was updated with the news that Peter Hartz, the official at the centre of the bribery scandal has been given a two year-suspended prison sentence.

Peter Hartz goes to court today to face charges of illegal payments to Union officials. Hartz was formerly head of personnel at the VW corporation. He had also been an influential figure in labour policy changes introduced by the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder. The story was a high profile one in Germany when he resigned from Volkswagen in July 2005, accompanied by lurid accounts of sexual shinnanigans.

The case has taken two years to reach court. Since then, the
corporation has encountered a range of further leadership problems.

A few months ago, Volkswagen chief executive Bernd Pischetsrieder stepped down under unclear circumstances.

Then an announcement was made that Wolfgang Bernhard is to leave his post as chairman of the Volkswagen brand group by the end of January 2007.

The Context

The New York Times analyses the situation as a leadership battle:

The former chief executive, Bernd Pischetsrieder, brought Mr. Bernhard, a former executive at DaimlerChrysler, into Volkswagen in October 2004 as part of his plan to cut costs at the automaker. Mr. Bernhard pushed through plans to cut 20,000 jobs and extend the workweek during the course of 2006. But in the process, he alienated the powerful Volkswagen union, IG Metall, which is also closely allied with Volkswagen’s chairman, Ferdinand Piëch. When Mr. Piëch, together with Porsche, a major Volkswagen shareholder, pushed out Mr. Pischetsrieder in favor of Mr. Winterkorn in November, Mr. Bernhard was left vulnerable to the same fate.

Leadership battles

The organizational leadership literature has gone some way from the original trait models, in which the great leader was presented as having special qualities through which he (almost always he) achieved great transformational change. Among other weaknesses, these models considered that the leader was the causative force for change.

Later models considered that there were situational factors which would influence leadership practices. However, the models still had a linear character, with the leader triggering change.

Professor Yukl has been one of the minority of leadership authorities warning against the simplicity of such models.

What seems to be happening at VW is a leadership drama in which the vested interests play out their parts in a way familiar to students of Shakespearean tragedies. No wonder that Leadership courses have turned to Shakespeare to throw light on contemporary business issues.


This week (Thursday 2th January) it was reported by the BBC that Peter Hartz has been given a two year-suspended prison sentence.

Hartz, a guiding hand behind former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s labour reforms, was fined 560,000 euros ($726,000; £369,000). The former head of personnel at Europe’s biggest carmaker escaped jail after cutting a deal with prosecutors.