Korean Air jet returns to terminal over improperly served nuts. Was firing justified?

Former Korean Air in-flight services chief Heather Cho ordered her jet back to the gate so that she could fire and remove from the aircraft a server who handed her macadamia nuts still in the package rather than on a plate.

Lee Jin-man/AP
Cho Hyun-ah, also known as Heather Cho, who was head of cabin service at Korean Air and the oldest child of Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho, speaks to the media upon her arrival for questioning at the Aviation and Railway Accident Investigation Board office of Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 12. The chairman of Korean Air Lines Co. apologized Friday for the behavior of his adult daughter who delayed a flight in an incident now dubbed 'nut rage.'

While having a temper tantrum has often served male American CEOs well, this week Cho Yang-ho, the chairman of Korean Air Lines in Seoul, South Korea, offered a humiliating apology for the behavior of his daughter Heather Cho, head of the airline’s in-flight services, after she turned a plane around over a packet of improperly served macadamia nuts.

Mr. Cho’s daughter was on a Korean Air flight that had just left the gate at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport on Dec. 5, bound for the South Korean city of Incheon.

Reportedly, Ms. Cho ordered her jet back to the gate so that she could fire and remove from the aircraft a server who handed her macadamia nuts still in the package rather than on a plate.

The head of the airline apologized on live television, as did his daughter who has resigned from many of her executive posts.

“Please blame me; it’s my fault,” Cho Yang-ho, the chairman of Korean Air Lines, said in front of a bank of cameras, at one point bowing deeply. Following a Korean tradition of showing public contrition when one’s children misbehave, he added, “I failed to raise her properly.”

Meanwhile, in America, the business community continues to excuse and sometimes celebrate male figures who rule with an iron hand and throw hissy-fits in public and online.

“The temper tantrum has not only become a fixture in corporate America, but it has been central to the management style of many of technology’s most successful CEOs — namely Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison — and management experts say when handled appropriately, this style can even be beneficial to employees and the company as a whole,” according to a 2013 article in Fortune Magazine

Celebrated Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs was reportedly not averse to angrily and candidly telling employees what he thought at the company when products didn't meet his expectations. He is remembered by many employees as an intimidating figure who used his temper to achieve results from those under him. 

Self-made billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was fined $500,000 for slamming the NBA officiating system and its director, Ed Rush, by saying “I wouldn’t hire him to manage a Dairy Queen. His interest is not in the integrity of the game or improving the officiating.”

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer once hurled a chair across a room upon receiving the resignation of software engineer Mark Lucovsky, according to Lucosvsky's account

Indeed, in corporate America, many successful CEOs have made this type of hair-trigger management style their hallmark, for which they have been by turns lambasted, praised, and imitated.

But as some have noted, while sometimes celebrated by male business leaders, overbearing behavior from female leaders is often interpreted more negatively. 

Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg examined this phenomenon in both her book Lean In and her “Ban Bossy” campaign launched in March of this year.

Ms. Sandberg famously insisted in March that people stop referring to girls and women as “bossy” as part of a national campaign to let girls in leadership shine by removing negative labels such as 'bossy' placed on girls taking charge. 

Sandberg believes because labeling them as such for showing leadership sets them up to fail in the business community and is one of the reasons why women’s progress in achieving leadership roles has stalled.

Business watchers may wonder if the career of a male business leader who had turned that flight around would have been grounded.

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