AirAsia Flight QZ8501: A lesson in crisis communications and the rise of the ‘new leader’

Written by Sharmin Cheema

On the 28th of December 2014, air traffic control lost contact with AirAsia Flight QZ8501 an hour after the plane departed Indonesia for Singapore, after the plane “climbed at abnormal speed” in bad weather before stalling and crashing into the Karimata Strait, off the west coast of Borneo.

All of a sudden AirAsia’s CEO, Tony Fernandes, found himself in a limelight so glaring post-MH370 and MH17 with a couple of nationals in the UK including The Guardianthe BBCthe Independent, and the Telegraph quick to run profile pieces on him, and other prominent publications such as TIME and the International Business Times jumping on the bandwagon as well.

Similar attention wasn’t quite accorded in the same manner to the CEO of Malaysia Airlines (MAS) at the time, Ahmad Jauhari, after the disappearance of MH370 and the downing of MH17 (a Google search reaped eight profile-related pieces for Fernandes and zero for AJ despite the fact that there were a total of 537 assumed fatalities on both MAS flights compared to AirAsia’s 162), so what was the reason for the uptake in attention when it came to Fernandes?

It could be that the media had special interest in the fact that Fernandes attended boarding school in Epsom. It could perhaps be because he was an entrepreneur that took risks, bought a struggling airline with debts amounting to US$11 million for RM1 (around US$0.26) and produced profits within 12 months of operations, with AirAsia’s revenues hitting US$1.58 billion as of 2013. It could also be because Fernandes has a persisting amiable working relationship with British businessman, Richard Branson.

It could be an innumerable number of reasons that the media took to Fernandes more than it did AJ, but it was Fernandes’ response to the crisis and what that might suggest about his emotional intelligence (EI) competencies that makes him a quintessential, to borrow psychologist Daniel Goleman’s term, ‘new leader’ of 2015.

So, what makes Fernandes a ‘new leader’ and what were the leadership traits demonstrated during the Flight QZ8501 crisis that the families of those affected, staff members, and the public resonated with?

1. He was honest and vulnerable at crucial moments.



Being honest and vulnerable comes with effort – sometimes it just feels easier to lie about something when the pressure mounts and the shit has hit the fan, or stonewall emotions that are too much to handle (MAS’ #staystrong campaign on social media is an example of this – this well-intentioned counsel is nonetheless misguided. Being strong means suppressing emotions that need to find their place; while it makes things manageable in the short term, its consequences are disastrous in the longer term).

Fernandes picked up on what he felt he owed the families of the passengers and the public first of all: the truth.

He didn’t conceal information or wait till he had all the facts and polished official statements (that he didn’t write) at hand before publishing a series of public tweets. He was honest and had made himself vulnerable – this was in stark contrast to MAS which had waited almost 20 minutes before it queried the disappearance of MH370, and which took four hours before launching a search and rescue operation.

It seems, then, that it is more acceptable to be honest about what one doesn’t understand, than to withhold information until such a time that one does – although there is a precarious balance between the two that can be difficult to strike. A consistent lack of information can be a source of great frustration too, as honest as one tries to be.

Granted, Fernandes had multiple opportunities to learn from the two recent MAS incidents that were close to home (perhaps too close for comfort), but still one has a feeling that he would’ve done the same had those earlier crashes not occurred.

2. He empathised with the families of the passengers and the AirAsia staff.



The first thing Fernandes did as soon as he received news of the plane’s disappearance was to catch a flight to Indonesia to be with the families and friends of passengers on-board Flight QZ8501. It was a courageous thing to do given that he had little to no information to provide them with and might be met with the impatience, anger and tears of those left to deal with the sudden, traumatic deaths of their loved ones.

This was the first step in attuning himself to how others felt – being present at the scene of great shock and grief helped him better understand what those affected were going through, which allowed him to ‘speak in their tone’ while assuaging anger and calming fears. Emotional contagion can be difficult to tame in situations where not much is known. Just being present was enough to demonstrate that Fernandes was taking a personal interest in their concerns.

Being a ‘new leader’ means nurturing others across the business to be leaders as well so that their contributions come across as being more self-directed and therefore, meaningful. In essence, Fernandes ‘manages meaning’ for the AirAsia group and offers a manner with which to interpret, and to react, in a given situation as people tend to take emotional cues from the boss.

When a business has suffered through a crisis like this, a leader’s demonstration of unflagging optimism (realistic and cautious, as opposed to unfounded, optimism) and a strong sense of camaraderie then spreads like wildfire through its chain of operations, affecting organisational climate and its staff’s response to the situation. This is evident from AirAsia X’s 2.31 percent share price climb last week after investors expressed confidence in its turnaround plan.

Being able to empathise has its benefits as well: according to Daniel Goleman, 20 to 30 percent of business performance boils down to how its staff feel about working there, dispelling the notion that “being empathic is for wimps” (read Belinda Parmer’s compelling case for empathising in the corporate world here).

When a boss is as empathic as Fernandes was, it leads to a powerful sense of acceptance and affirmation of one’s abilities to soldier through as one did before misfortune struck.

3. He bit his tongue when it mattered.


In the advent of social media and when it takes all of three seconds to post a tweet, it takes some degree of self-restraint to not hit back at trolls who sit behind their screens and spread their distasteful venom from the comfort of their bedrooms. Getting a reaction – whatever the reaction (and more often than not it is a negative comment that begets a strong reaction) – from a famous person seems to thrill cowards.

Relationship management must first begin with self-regulation, which means restraining one’s self from knee-jerk reactions including taming an immediate instinct to lash out in defense (let’s face it, the ‘block’ button just isn’t as fulfilling). The importance of this can’t be understated – anger disrupts rational thinking and spreads like an infectious disease.

AirAsia staff would’ve looked to Fernandes for assurance and understanding when faced with uncertainties and fears about the future of the airline and he would’ve been their emotional guide through this time. Being a ‘new leader’ means putting aside one’s own emotional tendencies and thinking about the greater good of the group, while accepting the support the group offers.


How a leader manages his moods, then, has an impact not just upon himself, but upon the success of a business, in this case AirAsia.

4. He showed appreciation to others both within AirAsia and beyond it.


It’s difficult to find something to be grateful for when disaster strikes (more often than not we are inclined to moan about something with little to no inclination to count our blessings; that we have a roof above our heads, a warm bed to go to each night, food on our table etc – humans are a strange lot, quick to be acquainted with creature comforts, slow to appreciate them)  – which is the reason appreciation becomes even more powerful.

Being thankful and grateful to the governments involved with the search and rescue operations as opposed to criticising them or focusing on the fact that bad weather was in fact hampering these same operations, focuses on whathas gone right as opposed to what hasn’t.

Also being grateful to each other encourages collaboration and sends across a message that the other’s efforts haven’t been in vain, which in turn pushes them to do more of the same.

The term ‘organisational’ tends to send across a functional, mechanical message which couldn’t be further from the truth. Organisations are made up of humans afterall and while before, people were seen as interchangeable parts to meet business ends, that same line of thinking no longer holds true.

The case of AirAsia Flight QZ8501 and Fernandes’ leadership has shown that leadership has to be personal and excel “in the art of relationship, the singular expertise that the changing business climate renders indispensable” according to Goleman, with leaders who are “more values-driven, more flexible and informal, and more open and frank than leaders of old.”

While Fernandes has taught us all a valuable lesson in crisis communications, he has also gone one step further in illuminating the fact that leaders of 2015 cannot succeed without the requisite EI skills and without roping in the strength that comes from the relationships sustained with those around them.

Indeed, no man is an island.

Not even Fernandes.

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