The Washington Post

FAA chief Randy Babbitt: The second reason he needed to resign


FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt resigned on December 6, 2011 after his arrest for allegedly driving while intoxicated. (Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES)

As Babbitt’s resignation makes clear, context is king—and as we’ll discuss in a bit, so is coming clean. For instance, say you’re a CEO of a major corporation and one of your star executives (whose job has nothing to do with driving, safety or operating heavy machinery) gets pulled over for having too much eggnog at the holiday party. Would you expect him to resign? On the one hand, choosing to get behind the wheel of a car says a lot about his judgment and decision-making. On the other, if there’s no other sign of a pattern of alcohol dependence, it could be a very human, if very risky, mistake. Many leaders, I’d guess, might suggest substance abuse counseling and admonish a first-time offender for being so careless. But they probably wouldn’t show him the door.

Now let’s consider a different example. Say you oversee several government agencies and the head of one of them has a job that, again, has nothing to do with driving, safety, heavy machinery, children, eggnog or any other category that doesn’t pair well with intoxicated driving. But he is a public figure, and therefore, subject to rules like the one in Fairfax City, where it’s the police department's policy to disclose the arrests of public officials. This one’s a trickier call: The crime doesn’t flagrantly fly in the face of a public safety campaign you’ve been touting, but having one of your deputies pulled over for a DUI is hardly good for your reputation, either.

Now let’s take this one step further: You learn about the arrest through a police press release, rather than the offending deputy coming to tell you himself. That makes your call much clearer. Even if he is a star performer—Babbitt was respected by Congress, and his departure could slow down or hurt the chances of safety measures being worked on by the FAA that the airline industry opposes—his inability to disclose difficult truths once a clearer head prevailed is a major red flag.

My guess is that as much as the context of Babbitt’s job factored into the FAA chief’s departure, the way LaHood found out about it played a big role as well. The transportation secretary apparently didn’t learn the news until more than 36 hours after the reported incident. “What I told Randy is that I was very disappointed with the way that I learned about this,” he said Tuesday.  Babbitt took to the skies for several hours Monday, landing just as the news became public Monday afternoon. If he is convicted, he will lose his pilot’s license.

People make mistakes. They get behind the wheel of the car when they shouldn’t, they drink too much at the holiday party. That’s not to excuse driving under the influence, but humans, even FAA chiefs, do have lapses in judgment. While Babbitt’s alleged decision to drive under the influence made keeping his job untenable, his unwillingness to tell LaHood the hard realities in a time of crisis is an even bigger cause for concern.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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