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Dr Anderson Uvie-Emegbo - Leading with Empathy: The Case of Air Asia
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Wednesday, 31 December 2014 00:00

Leading with Empathy: The Case of Air Asia Featured

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“Not Again! ~ ”The world exclaimed in horror on the 28th of December 2014 as news broke of the disappearance of Air Asia Indonesia flight QZ8501 with 162 people on board.

The airline industry has witnessed terrible losses in 2014. Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is still missing and Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine.

As I mark my birthday today, my thoughts are with Air Asia, the families of those on the flight and the governments and people of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Stay strong!

I will like to focus on Air Asia’s response to the disaster on social media.

Within minutes, Air Asia put out a tweet with a link to a press release on their website confirming that they had lost contact with the plane. Then Tony Fernandes took charge of the communication drive. Within minutes, he had tweeted words of comfort to Air Asia’s employees and families of those on board.

I have highlighted a couple below:

December 28, 5.52am: We will be putting out another statement soon. Thank you for all your thoughts and prayers. We must stay strong”.

December 28, 8.58am: “On my way to Surabaya where most of the passengers are from as with my Indonesian management. Providing information as we get it”.

December 28, 9.40am: My only thought are with the passengers and my crew. We put our hope in the SAR (search and rescue) operation and thank the Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysian governments”.

December 28, 12.06pm: “I am touched by the massive show of support especially from my fellow airlines. This is my worse nightmare. But there is no stopping”.

December 28, 12.09pm: “To all my staff Air Asia all stars be strong, continue to be the best. Pray hard. Continue to do your best for all our guests. See you all soon”.

December 28, 12.11pm: I as your group ceo will be there through these hard times. We will go through this terrible ordeal together and I will try to see as many of you”.

December 28, 12.13pm: “Our priority is looking after all the next of Kin for my staff and passengers. We will do whatever we can. We continue to pass information as it comes”.

December 29, 5.58am: “In Jakarta this morning to communicate with Search and Rescue. All assets now in region. Going back to Surabaya now to be with families”.

December 29, 5.59am: “Keeping positive and staying strong. My heart bleeds for all the relatives of my crew and our passengers. Nothing is more important to us”.

December 29, 6.20am: “My Allstars in Surabaya and red house in Jakarta have been amazing. It is at times like this you see the true quality of humans”.

December 29, 6.22am: “The staff in Indonesia have been brave, strong, committed and doing 150 percent for all our guests. My pride for them is enormous”.

December 29, 6.41am: “The warmth and support from the people of Indonesia has been incredible. Everywhere I go. Nothing but pure support”.

December 29,10.44pm: “Been one of my toughest days. Spent a large part of day meeting families of passengers. Doing whatever we can”.

December 29,10.45pm: “I also met the families of my crew and pilots. Not been able to see 3 families. Engineer, fo and one crew”.

December 29, 10.48pm: “The relatives of my crew were inspirational and so moving. Their support and love for Air Asia was unbelievable. Gave me huge strength”.

December 30, 9.11am: My heart is filled with sadness for all the families involved in QZ 8501. On behalf of AirAsia my condolences to all. Words cannot express how sorry I am”. (a few minutes after the search and rescue team announced that they had located the plane debris).

December 30, 9.12am: “I am rushing to Surabaya. Whatever we can do at Airasia we will be doing”.

Special support Centre’s were promptly set up for family members at both the departing and arrival airports. A special Skype call to Family members were able to Tony Fernandes changed his twitter profile image to the logo of Air Asia – not its traditional red colour but a grey colour. The background of his twitter page was also changed to one containing that of Air Asia’s plane and employees. 

Irrespective of the outcome of the investigation, Tony Fernandes and Air Asia will come out better than Malaysia Airlines. In all of these, he has shown the one quality needed during crisis but which is often lacking from those in leadership positions – EMPATHY!

Empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s experience. Empathy enabled Tony Fernandes to imagine himself in the shoes of the families. Empathy creates connections with others, which can help to build trust. Going forward, Air Asia would depend on this empathy to help forge stronger interpersonal connections between the management and employees.

He is not the first CEO whose airline went missing. However history looks set to be kind to him when the events surrounding the missing flight QZ8501 are documented. Somehow, he was able to dig in and show up – in front. He understood that during important moments, good or bad – the people and the public look up to the leadership of an organization for direction, for hope. 

I recommend media training for every one in a management role. One of these days, you might just need it.  There are certain things that cannot be left to the head of corporate communication or special advisers on media and public relations. Sometimes, you have got to step into the hot water and take charge.

Many of the criticisms leveled against public officials in the wake of various crisis situations stems from the fact that they have allowed themselves to come across as lacking in empathy. Like Emperor Nero they celebrated while Rome burned. Time and time again, they have missed the opportunity to show the people they truly care.

In 2015 and beyond, whether you vote for sweeping change or continued transformation, my birthday and New Year wish for Nigeria is that we will elect leaders with empathy. Happy 2015 in advance!

P.S: This article was also published in the 31st of December 2014 edition of the Punch Newspapers. Click to Read  

Dr Anderson Uvie-Emegbo

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