Management With Style

I have had a lot of managers during the course of my career. Some were good, some bad and some mediocre.  I eventually figured out that there is as much — or more — to learn from a bad manager as there is from a good one.

At one airline, I worked for a director who, during a staff meeting, told the entire department, “Don’t ever come to me with a problem unless you bring two or three solutions with you.” I understand what he was trying to do — to get the staff to think of some recommendations to solve problems as they occurred. The problem was that, well, it was HIS job to come up with the solutions. He was the one responsible for fixing whatever problem it might be. Yes, he was trying to be proactive in his own way, but the dreaded “unintended consequences” came into play.

What occurred was a perceived quality improvement. Things looked like they got better? What actually happened was that the employees quit reporting problems and potential problems. They knew that they didn’t have the answers to every problem that came up. Simply, if the employee had a solution to a problem when it came up, they fixed it. The only problems they traditionally took to the boss were the ones that they didn’t have the knowledge or authority to solve, and in effect, they had been specifically told by him to not bring problems without also bringing solutions.

So, if they knew how to fix a problem, they fixed it just as they always had. If they had a problem that they didn’t know how to fix, it was never taken to the boss because they knew there would be trouble if they took it to him without some proposed solutions. Problems and potential problems didn’t get reported early on, and the boss’ didn’t find out about them until they blew up. Problems that didn’t blow up were never reported. Subsequently, the number of problems reported dropped dramatically, and the boss perceived it as an improvement in quality.

Looking good by comparison

A manager at another airline had the management philosophy that the best means for his personal longevity in the company was to ensure that he was not the weakest link in his own chain. That is, to ensure that every person who worked for him was less competent than himself, thus making him look good by comparison.

This also worked to protect his position as manager because no one below him was able to challenge his position due to the limited potential for any of them to be promoted to replace him. It also gave him a built-in excuse for the low performance of his shop, because, well, look what he had to work with.

Yes, I know, the logic he employed is a little bit warped, but in an odd sort of way, you can see the feasibility of it for him. But, what did this philosophy do for the company?

Best and brightest

Another manager I know held an opposite approach that would have worked well, had there not been one tiny little flaw.  This manager made it a point to surround herself with the best and brightest people she could find. She even made a point of recruiting people from other departments within the airline to work in her department. A great plan ... so far.

Where it went terribly wrong was that this manager was the queen of micromanagement. Nothing occurred in the department without her personal involvement and approval. Nothing. Ever. You recruit the best and brightest for a reason. That reason, of course, is because they are the best and brightest. Would you hire a master sculptor, put him or her in a strait jacket, and expect him or her to produce masterpiece quality work? Then why would you go to the expense and bother of recruiting the absolute best people you can and then handicap them?

No room for creativity

I worked for one manager who would never tell you how to do something. She would give the simplest of instructions, which usually consisted of (1) this is what I want, (2) this is when I want it and (3) if you have any problems, come see me. The logic was that telling a person how to accomplish a task hindered creativity and sometimes produced a result that was less than what it could have otherwise been.

Let me explain that. The manager will have some concept of how to get a project accomplished based on personal experiences. If the manager gives the employee the tasks and tells them to do it the way the manager has in their head, the employee will, of course, follow that instruction — usually without comment. However, the employee may well have a better, cheaper, faster idea on how to accomplish the task, but may not speak up. Employees can sometimes amaze you with their ingenuity — if you let them.

“How it’s always been done”

One manager I worked with at a major airline used a shared spreadsheet to track components and parts in and out of repair shops. In part, this was done because “they had always done it that way.” The problem with this was that a lot of data was being entered and deleted in this spreadsheet every day, and there was no tracking history maintained. Tracking and trending of anything just wasn’t possible.

I suggested that they use a shared database program to track the parts, and even went so far as to build a sample database to show the concept. The response I got from the manager was, “We work in the here and now. We care about what we get done today. What happened yesterday doesn’t matter, and we’ll worry about tomorrow when it gets here.” 

Security by obscurity

Airlines have a requirement by regulation to immediately lock down aircraft records on their computer system in case of an aircraft accident or incident. This is accomplished by looking up the aircraft record in the computer then entering a lockdown code to freeze the records for that aircraft. It is a pretty straightforward system. Well ... almost.

I’m sure that with just a tiny bit of thought you could think of several good reasons why this lockdown code should be protected and limited to just a handful of people. Just think what a mischievous or disgruntled employee could do — or the damage that could be done by someone just playing around in the system, not really knowing what they were doing.

The manager in charge of this system used a well-known (but thankfully rarely-used) computer protection scheme to prevent tampering with the lockdown system by people who shouldn’t be tampering with it — commonly known as “security by obscurity.” That’s it. Just keep this lockdown code safe by not telling everyone the secret code and asking the people who had a reason to know the code not to spread it around.

Now, it was a fact that many of the people who had the need to know the lockdown code were the kind of people who kept all their passwords and secret codes on a sticky note securely hidden under their computer keyboard where they would never be compromised. (We all know someone like that, don’t we?)

This was bad enough. However, to make matters worse, a full, searchable listing of every valid computer code for the entire computer system including the lockdown code was available not only in the computer system itself but also on the airline’s Intranet system. Anybody who had access to either system could look up the lockdown code easily.

The sad part about this was that the manager in charge thought the “security by obscurity” system was adequate because “no one would ever go to that much trouble to find out what the lockdown code is, and even if someone did, the potential problems would be miniscule.”

Lessons learned

Management styles differ greatly. As I have said many times before, I learned a great deal from every manager I have ever worked with, whether they were great managers, mediocre managers or bad managers. There is something to be learned from all of them. Just take care to not learn the wrong things.

Bill Brinkley holds an FAA Airframe and Powerplant certifications as well as an Inspection Authorization and FCC ratings. He is among the first in the nation to receive the PAMA/SAE Aviation Maintenance Engineer rating. Brinkley has an extensive background in both fixed-wing and rotor maintenance and processes, including the areas of reliability, quality, configuration management, human factors and maintenance planning. He is a columnist for three nationally-published maintenance magazines, and has been a featured speaker at numerous maintenance and reliability seminars.

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