Virgin rail crash is a leadership challenge for Richard Branson and John Armitt

February 25, 2007

220px-richardbranson.jpgA crisis brings its particular leadership challenges. The Cumbrian rail crash has revealed the various kinds of challenges for the emergency service teams, as well as for the roles demanded of leaders, such as Virgin head Richard Branson and Network Rail’s John Armitt

The London to Glasgow Pendolino train derailed in a remote region of Cumbria late in the evening of Saturday 24th February 2007, killing one passenger and injuring another two dozen. The majority of the 120 passengers were relatively unscathed. The high speed train with its innovative tilting technology had been introduced successfully over the last few years. The scale of human loss could have been far greater, and this appears to confirm the claimed robustness of the structural design of the train. Failures to the track-maintenance appear to be the likely immediate cause of the accident. In times of crisis we look for leadership. So what happened?

Leadership visibility and contributions

Leader of the main rail union Bob Crow was one of the first to get to the site of the accident, and provide a statement for his members and the wider public. He indicated the preliminary evidence as pointing to points failure. There was some mild criticism of him for the statement prior to a more detailed investigation. Crow’s information turned out to reflect accurately the focus of investigation subsequently.

Richard Branson was reported as having cut short a holiday to get back to England and the scene of the crash. He also visited casualties in hospital. His statements were widely reported, and he spoke eloquently about the heroism of ‘his’ driver, Iain Black who was among the injured, as well as of the human suffering. He also conveyed the message that the design of ‘his’ train had been a major factor in minimizing the scale of suffering that occurred.

If Branson is seen as an energetic, empathic, decisive leader, Bob Crow should also receive accolades. Their involvement compares favourably visibility, decisiveness and efforts of political figures, and (it must be said) with the efforts of John Armitt, chief executive of Network Rail. He eventually provided a statement acknowledging that the accident may have occurred ‘on our watch’. As far as I am aware he was not reported as visiting the scene of the crash, or the hospitals. Earlier ‘on his watch’ he drew praise for his leadership during the Potters’ Bar crash. Mr. Armitt has a track-record as an empathic and hands-on leader, but it may not be coincidence that his retirement date has already been set for later in the year.

Even Mr Armitt’s modest contribution stands out in comparison to those of politicians who have been jostling for media attention this week. Is this the result of a calculated decision to keep away from the whole business? We will probably learn more in the coming days as a report of the accident comes out.

The Role of leaders

According to Weber, leaders traditionally drew authority from their acceptance as intermediaries of transcendental forces. They were indeed the chosen ones, or the special ones. Later, the chosen ones became accepted as having unchallengeable rights as leaders of tribes and nations. Weber developed his theorizing of charisma around such ideas. One relevant aspect of his ideas is the role of the leader in a crisis to bring comfort and reassurance.

More recently, political and management scientists such as Alan Bryman have been working out a new leadership model. His earlier work has been updated recently in a chapter on the post-charismatic era of leadership.

Bryman, with co-author Ken Parry, have marshaled considerable evidence indicating the limitations of the long-familiar notion of leader as heroic figure. They also draw attention to the way leadership is more of a shared (distributed) effect than was previously realized.

We defer elaboration of this to future posts. However, we note that researchers have become more concerned with the way in which leaders influence intentionally or unintentionally the cultural agenda. In terms we have been using, this involves production and consumption of cultural messages.

Assessing the leadership contributions

Richard Branson behaved according to expectations for a charismatic leader. He was decisive, empathic, and provided powerful images through the media. Bob Crow had less access to the media, and his impact was accordingly diminished in the eyes of the public. John Armitt may have made a peripheral impact (although his admission of possible culpability within his organization was a cut above the more common PR-mediated messages often resorted to by leaders fearful of admitting liability or weakness).

Weber’s broad ideas of a leader offering solace at times of crisis seem more convincing than the 1990s models of ransformational leaders offering powerful and uplifting visionary guidance.

Clearly there need be no either-or. However, the role of ‘just being there’ may have been under-estimated, as has the damaging impact of ‘not being there’


Update on Richard Branson planned for September 2014