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The effect of Leader-Follower in China as viewed from an airline passenger seat

Recently I read Turn the Ship Around! and I’m seeing quite a lot of leader-follower management all around. And I’ve seen a lot more of it while I was in China.

As David Marquet, then captain of the submarine USS Sante Fe, explains leader-follower management creates helpless followers who rely on the strong charismatic leader to make all decisions. The followers are trained to stop thinking and to be fearful of making mistakes. That leads to a huge effort by everyone to avoid errors and eventually to mediocrity for the whole organization.

Leader-follower also makes people enjoy cheating when nobody seems to watch. When the cat is out of the house the mice dance on the table is a saying. It is very much true.

The last opportunity to witness the results from leader-follower was our flight from China back to Germany.

The cabin crew was preparing for take off and as usual one should put the tray tables up, move the seat into the upright position and turn off electronic devices. On Chinese airlines they still require passengers to actually turn off mobile phones and not use the flight mode. So when they spot anyone during flight with a turned on phone - even in flight mode to listen to music - it becomes a major issue.

The flight from Beijing to Frankfurt was a bit late so the crew went about everything as fast as they could. That led to more visible signs of leader-follower than usual.

Instead of asking people to turn off their devices, put the seat upright or put up the tray tables, they were telling people in a demanding tone. I only understood the English and German announcements and when the crew was talking to individual passengers in English but most of it was not very polite and more a command - almost barked at people.

With my new knowledge of Chinese corporate culture I felt that the crew was trying hard to avoid errors and they were caring a lot more about their own asses than the feelings of their customers. They were fearing their leaders.

Overall the security announcement on Chinese airlines has a different twist than on European and American airlines that I’ve used so far. In China the flight attendants take position throughout the cabin while one of them reads the announcement. You can clearly see how they focus and are somehow stiff when they demonstrate the floor lighting and exits. Then the same gets explained in the security video a second time. Be sure to make no mistakes.

On Chinese airlines the use of cell phones at all on board of aircraft is absolutely forbidden. Directly after landing there is an announcement that cell phones need to be kept switched off until the aircraft door has been opened. The very moment the announcement is spoken everyone on the plane turns on their cellphone and starts making calls. None of the flight attendants on any of my roughly 30 flights in China over the last six months has ever stopped people from doing it. The rule is not enforced and thus can be ignored - there is no risk.