Photo Courtesy johnhain/Pixabay

United Airlines Chief delivers a ‘don’t’ Lesson in Leadership

United Airlines found itself in yet another pickle for poor treatment of its passenger. But poor is an understatement in this case, because the passenger, who happened to be a doctor, was dragged off the flight to make room for an employee of United. He was not only robbed of his dignity but was left bleeding from the mouth by the time the crew was done with him. What followed after was a series of gaffes by United, starting with a letter from the chief to the employees blaming the passenger and voicing support for their behavior.

Within a matter of hours the video and then the letter went viral and there was public outcry, disgust, anger and disappointment. United stock fell, wiping $255 million off the m-cap, finally leading to a statement of apology.

As the reportage and opinions continue,a few things stand out for me. First of which, is the ‘roll the dice’ airline rule that allows flights to be overbooked; betting on cancellations to hurtle its employees to work, hoping they will somehow be on duty, in time.Dragging passengers off the flight is one way to ensure that or removing the ‘betting’ from the equation might be another, but we’ll leave that to the experts.

The more glaring lesson was delivered by the leader of the company.From the moment the customer was manhandled by his staff, the chief was directly on point,not his PR machine, not the CCO,but he. The damage could’ve been contained at various points but the situation got worse with every word uttered since the unfortunate incident.

One of the most important jobs of the chief is to keep the company’s customer ,and keep them happy. Doing this one thing right makes shareholder value, bottom line growth yadda , yadda , yadda, that much more get-able. But the United crew on flight #3411 failed that job. If the damage from the viral video wasn’t real, the chief made sure of it. While humans are fallible and no one’s perfect, there were many opportunities to make amends and none were taken.

The gentleman in question , regardless of whether he was a passenger on an overbooked flight or not ( turns out the flight wasn’t overbooked) deserved respect from the chief and everyone in his organisation, first and foremost as a human being and second as their paying customer.

I’ve always believed that leadership positions amplify personality traits and crises such as this one put those traits on display, for the world to see. This crisis needed the chief to demonstrate the belief that he respected the passenger and what happened was unacceptable to him as a leader, instead he chose to blame the customer and boost employee morale.We could chalk it up to temporary lapse of judgement and move on, or stop to consider that this incident and the subsequent handling of it , points to something much deeper i.e. apathy and disregard. The exact things a company cannot afford.

If the airline, or anyone from the flight crew all the way up to the CEO, had demonstrated basic courtesy and respect,we wouldn’t be talking about this incident, or at least considering accepting a belated apology from the chief. But since neither the human nor the customer was respected, during nor after the incident , it gives us all pause.

United’s brand image was damaged further and m-cap eroded. There is a lesson in this not just for United but for us all, and it’s a very valuable one — of respect for the dignity of human life. It’s not rocket science and doesn’t take an MBA to learn, and yet, we saw abject failure to demonstrate or uphold this fundamental value.

As a customer of United, I was shocked and disappointed but the point is not to demonize the chief nor the airline . I am, however, compelled to ask— “When and how did this apathy and disregard toward fellow humans become OK and what can we do about it?