What can CEOs learn from United Airlines?

The forced removal from a flight of a United Airlines passenger who had booked and paid for his seat reveals some very telling things about what is still wrong with the way executive teams, led by CEOs who operate with a military model and mindset, run their companies.

Briefly, the military model of leadership and management has been the model used to run corporates for more than a century. This model results in leadership by force, where any signs of compassion or accommodation are regarded as weakness. In wartime, that makes perfect sense. Armies don’t negotiate, they attack their enemy and shoot to kill. The military model further dictates that lower ranked people obey orders. In days gone by, soldiers who disobeyed orders got shot – by their own side – to prevent any further troops from disobeying orders. After all, when you’re sending people to their deaths, you can’t afford to have them refuse to go.

Military style leadership is however being replaced by compassionate leadership – leadership that is strong but emotionally intelligent and gentle. And don’t for one minute confuse gentleness with weakness. Only people who are strong can afford to be gentle.

United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, has said that what happened doesn’t reflect the values of the company. Rubbish – what happened is a very accurate reflection of the company’s values. They just can’t bring themselves to admit what their real values are – values which have now manifested in these recent actions. People have a remarkable inability to see themselves as others see them. Watch the many reality TV programmes where people are caught red-handed doing something wrong. What’s the first thing they say? “I’m not a thief,” or “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

That’s how they prefer to think of themselves while all the evidence is shouting to the contrary. Let’s face it, if the cops had to believe everyone who denied that they had done anything wrong, they would let a lot of guilty people go free.

So Munoz’s protestations that this incident doesn’t reflect the company’s values are a somewhat misguided. Simply look at what happened and you’ll see their values very clearly.

Factor 1: They overbook their flights

Sure, every airline overbooks flights on the understanding that not everyone arrives for their flight. Airlines do this fully aware of the possibility that, in airline speak, “in the unlikely event” that everybody DOES arrive, they will have to bump a given number of people off the flight and onto a later flight.

What does this factor say about their values? It says that profit is more important than people. The people (their customers) who pay for their flights so the company can make a profit are not important. They come second to the company’s profits.

Factor 2: The paying passengers needed to be removed so that United employees could take their seats.

What was so important that these United employees just HAD to get to their destination at the cost of removing paying customers? I don’t know and we’ll probably never know.

But this does tell us that their values are all screwed up – that their employees come first, not their customers. The people who are actually paying for the salaries of United employees do not count at all. It appears that, in United’s opinion, customers are a necessary evil, an inconvenience getting in the way of their employees doing what they really want to do – look after themselves.

Factor 3: Passengers were “bribed” with offers of $400 and then $800 to get off the plane.

This is another telling factor about how United thinks. All the brains in United could not come up with a better alternative than throwing money at the problem. It obviously never occurred to anyone that it might be helpful to think in terms of what their customers actually want – to get to their destination as fast and as safely as possible.

So, surely it would make a lot more sense to offer passengers who have to get bumped off a particular flight the option of catching another flight 10 minutes or a half hour later, even if you pay for their ticket on another airline leaving from another gate in 10 minutes! All the airlines should have an agreement in place to that effect. And don’t worry about the fact that the passenger’s baggage has already been loaded onto the aircraft. Make arrangements for their baggage to be waiting for them when their alternate flight arrives at the same destination.

The cost incurred in doing something like that will be far, far less than the cost of the damage United has now inflicted on themselves. If they had made such an offer, none of us would have been any the wiser about the four people who were bumped off that flight.      

So, instead of showing how materialistic they really are, thinking that it’s only all about money, that people will do anything for a quick buck and, when they couldn’t get their way, they could bully people into submission, maybe they could have simply given the customer what they wanted – the option of a flight leaving shortly thereafter, not the next day. And come to think of it, why couldn’t their employees fly the next day?

There are a number of other lessons that leap out of this story but I have confined myself to this one to urge you to start shifting away from a military leadership model.

Any company, no matter what business they’re in, that presides over the assault of a customer who has paid them money doesn’t deserve to be in business. But, then again, that’s the way military leaders think and behave. They think in terms of an enemy that has to be overpowered and conquered at all costs.

Before you throw up your hands in shock and say, “We would never do that,” bear in mind that United would probably have said the same thing. CEOs need to do some honest self-reflection to identify and root out military thinking in themselves and their companies.

Alan Hosking is the publisher of HR Future magazine, www.hrfuture.net, @HRFuturemag, and assists executives to prevent, reverse and delay ageing, and achieve self-mastery.

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