Calm in a Cyclone: Profile of a Leader

The first woman to head the National Transportation Safety Board relies on her ability to stay focused and gather information

Just eight weeks after two airplanes rammed into the World Trade Center towers, American Airlines flight 587 crashed in Queens, N.Y., and became the second-worst aviation disaster in U.S. history. The public, still traumatized by the events of September 11, was eager to know whether this was another terrorist act or a horrible accident.

The crash site, a neighborhood that's home to many New York police and firefighters, swarmed with recovery workers, political leaders, and shell-shocked residents. Into the chaos stepped a calm and reassuring presence--and I'm not talking about then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. It was Marion Blakey, the first woman to head the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the federal agency that investigates civil airplane crashes.

Moments after the crash, and throughout the next week, Blakey held frequent briefings on the progress of the investigation and reported as early as possible that there was no evidence of terrorism, putting many people's worst fears to rest. "There was a feeling of being in the vortex of a cyclone," recalls Blakey, 54, who recently chatted with me about her first few weeks on the job after the Senate confirmed her nomination by President Bush on Sept. 26.

Although many people hadn't heard of Blakey until Nov. 12, when flight 587 went down, she is no newcomer to government or crisis management. She has served in five federal departments and agencies, including the White House, as President Reagan's deputy assistant for communications and public affairs, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as chairman. She also headed up her own public-affairs firm that helped corporate clients handle crises.

I asked Blakey to explain what wisdom she has gained that might help others lead and maintain public confidence in times of turmoil. The key thing to remember, she says, is to avoid self-absorption. "You will need all of your attention and strength focused on the circumstances around you," she says. "Remember that this is not about you."

Once focused, it is essential to concentrate on the information others give you, as well as on your own observations. She has found that when she's truly tuned into others, "many of the requests are more simple and straightforward than they first appear." Immediately after the crash, she was afraid family members would inundate her with as yet unanswerable questions about the cause. What they really wanted to know, however, were immediate concerns, such as when to expect recovery of their loved ones' remains.

Armed with information, you must take charge and act. But just as important, she says, "you must recognize your own limitations" and be aware of "where you can't and shouldn't be authoritative, and where you should rely on others." For example, Blakey does not have a technical background, so throughout the investigation she worked with NTSB Deputy Director of Aviation Safety Tom Haueter, a pilot and engineer, among others.

Perhaps as a result of her communications background, Blakey sees the need to work hand-in-hand with the press. While many people want to explore circumstances thoroughly before deciding what to tell the media, "the public has a need to know, and you must stay ahead of their expectations and the story," says Blakey. To that end, she provides facts in a straightforward manner and acknowledges publicly what she knows and doesn't know. "Don't assume the [press] is adversarial," she says. "They have an important job to do, and it is in your interest to help them do it well."

In a crisis, leaders are often judged on how well they communicate. By that measure alone, Blakey already has proved herself an effective leader.

By Toddi Gutner

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