The Downfall Of Boeing: The Deathly Impact Of Bad Leadership & Toxic Culture

At times, the consequences of bad leadership and toxic culture are not just high turnover rate or bad customer experience — in extreme situations, it leads to the loss of life. 

Faulty system? Or faulty leadership?

In February 2022, Netflix released an eye-opening documentary titled “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing”. The documentary is centered around the fall of Boeing after the two back-to-back crashes of their newest 737 Max model — causing the deaths of 346 people on board only minutes after takeoff. 

Later in the film, we learn that both crashes were caused by a faulty sensor on the aircraft that triggers the MCAS — Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System — a software installed by Boeing to keep the aircraft from stalling. 

The problem arose when Boeing attempted to cut costs by using legal tactics to avoid retraining of pilots on ‘reworked’ systems. In an attempt to increase sales, the company promoted their 737 Max model and claimed that the new model had the same features as their older ones and that pilots already accustomed to the 737 models did not require re-training. Without the proper training, when MCAS was activated, untrained pilots who had no knowledge of the new feature installed struggled to stabilize the aircraft and became powerless to stop the full-speed dive towards their deaths. 

As a response to these major accidents, the CEO of Boeing emphasized that safety is still very much a core value at Boeing and that their planes are perfectly safe. As journalists and congressmen dug deep, they uncovered that the real problem was not faulty software or engineering — but in the leadership and culture of Boeing. 

In the documentary, it was revealed that after the takeover by McDonnell Douglas, top management executives began to cut corners for the sake of increasing stock prices and profit.

“Working Together” no more

This is a far cry from the culture and “Working Together” organizational system that Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Boeing had built and implemented in Boeing. 

In the documentary, they provided us with a glimpse of what the Boeing company culture was like under Alan Mulally’s leadership through the eyes of former employees of Boeing. 

“It was a culture of mutual trust, and we’re in this together, building a quality-engineered product, that makes us all proud”

“I really loved working there because I had a say. And when something wasn’t right, I could bring it up, and I wasn’t afraid of being fired. Boeing management knew that safety came first.”

“The culture back then was we’re all in this together, and Boeing’s gonna look out for you, and we expect you to look out for Boeing. There was a sense of belonging and a sense of structure, and a sense of family. It was an excellent company to work for.”

“Before McDonnell Douglas, we just didn’t take shortcuts cause it just wasn’t Boeing culture. No shortcuts. You do it right, and you build in the quality and the safety, and the profits will follow.”

And that’s when it all changed. 

“We saw the company changing before our eyes.”

“Instead of fixing problems, everything was about speed.”

“Boeing quit listening to their employees. Every time I’d raise my hand and say “Hey we got a problem here,” they would attack the messenger and ignore the message.”

“Boeing whistleblowers have said that anybody that reported a problem at the South Carolina plant was either fired or let go or moved on.”

“My pay was docked for putting quality concerns in writing.”

Consequences Of Bad Leadership & Toxic Culture

A New York Times story revealed Boeing has “a culture that often valued production speed over quality.” They expected their people to take shortcuts and do whatever was necessary to get the product out the door. 

There have been quite a number of claims and complaints but management pressured employees not to report violations. According to accounts by the whistleblowers interviewed, management laid off experienced engineers, pressured suppliers to cut costs, paid workers below their pay grade while expecting them to work twice as hard. 

From this short documentary, we can quickly identify the signs of bad leadership habits at Boeing —  from refusing to listen to their employees, blaming others for their own mistakes, lying and intimidating their employees. This kind of self-serving agenda has outweighed the responsibility those leaders have to their customers — the airline travelers. 

Related read: 7 Bad Habits That Leaders Should Avoid

By moving towards being a financially driven company — focusing more on shareholder value than stakeholder safety — Boeing lost its identity as an aviation company that prioritizes quality and safety. In the last few years, they have not just lost their customers’ trust, the loyalty of their employees but are also responsible for the deaths of those who lost their lives in the two preventable crashes in 2018 and 2019. 

These are the consequences of bad leadership and toxic environments.

Related read: 5 Ways Leaders Can Fix A Toxic Work Environment

Internal Reflection

Now, it is time for us to reflect and identify whether there are signs of bad leadership or any red flags that we might have missed in our own organizations.

Take the initiative to ask for feedback or feedforward from your employees or colleagues. Seek continuous improvement by shining a light on issues and working together to eliminate the root causes. 

Make sure that your employees are well taken care of, that they are provided with all of the resources and support they need. Put your stakeholders at the center of everything you do at your organization. 

Lastly, self-awareness is an essential part of being a leader. By understanding your values, emotions, habits, and how they affect your stakeholders, you will be able to make better decisions and be a better leader. 

Bottom line: Leadership, it’s where it all stems from. 




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