Leadership: Chief Executive Officers Should Read This Article Because…

“T he quality of our leaders in corporate America won’t change until we start evaluating them and our leadership development practices with a more clinical eye, using useful, objective metrics, rather than simply handing out questionnaires at the end of leadership development activities and asking participants if they enjoyed it. ‘The leadership industry is so obsessively focused on the normative — what should leaders do and how things ought to be — that it has largely ignored asking the fundamental question of what actually is true and why.’”

The quote you just read is from this article called Jeffrey Pfeffer: Why the Leadership Industry Has Failed written by Eilene Zimmerman for the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where Pfeffer is a professor; and chief executive officers should read this article because it focuses on how advice given to leaders is too often based on the ideal world and not on reality.

This is especially true of not only chief executive officers in the commercial aviation industry; but to most executives in the airline, lodging, rental car and other industries related to travel as well.

Was Jeff Smisek an exemplary leader as the chief executive officer of United Airlines? I asked that question in this recent article; and it is difficult for me to find someone who answered “yes” even before his being relieved of his responsibilities at United Continental reportedly related to ongoing federal and internal investigations associated with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, whose former chairman is suspected to have allegedly used his prominent position to demand favorable treatment or personal benefit from United Airlines. One purported example was for a weekly direct flight between Newark and Columbia in South Carolina near the vacation home of David Samson, who resigned from his position as chairman back in March of 2014.

As I wrote in that aforementioned article, leaders tend to exemplify the following five practices of leadership:

  1. Model the way
  2. Inspire a shared vision
  3. Challenge the process
  4. Enable others to act
  5. Encourage the heart

Will Oscar Munoz Be an Exemplary Leader?

I watched this short video of Oscar Munoz, who is now the chief executive officer of United Airlines…

…and although I have never met him, my first impression was that he sounds like a genuine person who is down to earth and cares about the stakeholders of United Airlines: the shareholders, the business partners and vendors, the employees, and — most importantly of all — the customers.

“I work for you” is what he said in the video. “So let’s be honest. The implementation of the United and Continental merger has been rocky for customers and employees; and while it’s been improving recently, we still haven’t lived up to our promise — or our potential. That’s going to change.”

Does that sound familiar?

1. Jim Whitehurst

Jim Whitehurst gave a presentation prior to the unveiling of the new livery of Delta Air Lines on Monday, April 30, 2007 when the airline official emerged from bankruptcy protection. Photograph ©2007 by Brian Cohen.

Jim Whitehurst gave a presentation prior to the unveiling of the new livery of Delta Air Lines on Monday, April 30, 2007 when the airline official emerged from bankruptcy protection. Photograph ©2007 by Brian Cohen.

We screwed up” were the refreshingly candid words Jim Whitehurst — who was the chief operating officer of Delta Air Lines at that time on the evening of Thursday, May 18, 2006 — used to launch his presentation to a select audience in an old building in Atlanta as part of an event called The Velvet Rope Tour; and I can tell you that the ears of every attendee in that room perked up when they heard those three simple yet unexpected words.

Transparency, clarity and honesty is not an issue solely for airlines to follow. With the exception of sensitive information which clearly needs to be classified, all businesses need to ensure that information is disseminated to their customers transparently, honestly and with clarity; and yet a scant few seem to actually do so.

I have always believed that one of the most important aspects — if not the most important aspect — of leadership is earning trust. If you are not trusted, you cannot be a true leader. It is as simple as that.

Jim Whitehurst is someone whom I can trust. I remember when I learned about the news that he was no longer with Delta Air Lines. I called his mobile telephone number and wished him the best, suggesting that he will land on his feet in no time and embark on an even better opportunity. I know that he did not need to hear that from me; but he seemed appreciative just the same. I told him that because I truly believed it — not because he needed to hear that from me or anyone else. I do not waste my time telling people things which I do not believe myself — and I hope that shows in the articles I post here at The Gate

…and before I knew it, he became the chief executive officer of Red Hat, Incorporated in Raleigh and still holds that position today. In addition to being highly respected at that company, he is still equally highly respected by many frequent fliers of Delta Air Lines.

Please allow me to give a few more examples in no particular order of other people whom I believe have exemplified leadership — all of whom I have met at least several times and not just for a cursory meeting of a few seconds with a handshake and a greeting; and most of whom were at Delta Air Lines…

2. Richard Anderson

From left to right: Steven Klamon, Brian Cohen and Richard Anderson at the auditorium of the training center at the world headquarters of Delta Air Lines just prior to Richard speaking to approximately 200 frequent fliers of Delta Air Lines in attendance on the first of four days of the 2010 Delta Air Lines FlyerTalk Event. Photograph courtesy of Greg Johnston. Click on the photograph for more photographs from the 2010 Delta Air Lines FlyerTalk Event.

From left to right: Steven Klamon, Brian Cohen and Richard Anderson at the auditorium of the training center at the world headquarters of Delta Air Lines just prior to Richard speaking to approximately 200 frequent fliers of Delta Air Lines in attendance on the first of four days of the 2010 Delta Air Lines FlyerTalk Event. Photograph courtesy of Greg Johnston.

Say what you will about Richard Anderson — who is the current chief executive officer of Delta Air Lines — but when the top executive of a major multibillion dollar corporation takes the time to craft a handwritten note in response to an inquiry instead of sending an impersonal e-mail message, I find that small action impressive.

At the luncheon to thank all of the employees of Delta Air Lines for the success of the first Delta Air Lines FlyerTalk Event back in June of 2009, Richard promised me and my colleague Steven Klamon a larger budget for the second Delta Air Lines FlyerTalk Event back in October of 2010 which we co-organized — there was even a special weblog for that event hosted right here at BoardingArea, but it does not exist anymore — and boy, did he ever come through on that promise. Richard even attended the executive engagement session to speak to and interact with frequent fliers of Delta Air Lines; and not just for a couple of minutes — probably more like at least 30 minutes…

…and for the luncheon on the afternoon of Monday, March 14, 2011 to thank all of the employees of Delta Air Lines for the incredible success of that second event, Richard made sure to stop by for a few minutes to say a few words as he promised — and he apologized to me for not staying longer, but he had to deal with the emergency situation pertaining to Japan, which had just experienced a major earthquake. He could have simply canceled — and it would have absolutely been understandable, given the unusual and exceptional circumstances. Richard Anderson has proven that not only keeps his promises; but he also exceeds the parameters of them.

I have also noticed how many employees of Delta Air Lines act around him. They enjoy working for him and with him. They speak highly about him and his accomplishments. Despite him being a rather comparatively humble man from Texas, his very presence excites them. It certainly helps that he has led the airline to become a profitable company which sets records financial quarter after financial quarter; and uses some of those profits for the direct benefit of the employees, which includes increased compensation.

By no means is he perfect, however. What he said pertaining to the Open Skies debate was an embarrassing misstep

“And it’s a great irony to have the UAE from the Arabian Peninsula talk about that, given the fact that our industry was really shocked by the terrorism of 9/11, which came from terrorists from the Arabian Peninsula.”

…and it is one about which he certainly should have been more careful — but certainly not a gaff which permanently tarnished his reputation.

3. Gerald Grinstein

Ship 638 — the first aircraft to sport the new Delta Air Lines livery on April 29, 2007 — sported this dedication to Gerald Grinstein below the window of the cockpit of the Boeing 757-232(WL). Photograph ©2007 by Brian Cohen.

Ship 638 — the first aircraft to sport the new Delta Air Lines livery on Monday, April 30, 2007 — sported this dedication to Gerald Grinstein below the window of the cockpit of the Boeing 757-232(WL). Photograph ©2007 by Brian Cohen.

Gerald Grinstein — the former chief executive officer of Delta Air Lines — is another example of a leader who “puts his money where his mouth is.” When Delta was hemorrhaging billions of dollars, he granted himself an annual salary of $450,000.00 with no bonuses or stock options of any kind — a lot of money, yes; but not nearly the compensation other airline executives were receiving.

I can go on and on about Jerry — but that could literally take up an entire book. He faced incredible adversity which he seemed to resolve with aplomb even though he worked furiously and overcame problems which seemed impossibly insurmountable. For example, it was during his tenure when US Airways — led by Doug Parker, who is the current chief executive officer of American Airlines — attempted the hostile takeover of Delta Air Lines in November of 2006. This led to the Keep Delta My Delta campaign launched by Christopher Muise, who was a member of the Delta Board Council at that time. His work — along with his approachable and friendly demeanor — restored the close-knit culture of the employees of Delta Air Lines.

Brian Cohen and Jerry Grinstein chat aboard a Boeing 757-200 aircraft operated by Delta Air Lines on Tuesday, May 1, 2007. Photograph courtesy of Delta Air Lines.

Brian Cohen and Jerry Grinstein chat aboard a Boeing 757-232(WL) aircraft operated by Delta Air Lines on Tuesday, May 1, 2007. Photograph courtesy of Delta Air Lines.

On a special flight on Tuesday, May 1, 2007 from Atlanta to Salt Lake City — the day after Delta Air Lines emerged from bankruptcy — I had an opportunity to sit next to Jerry Grinstein for approximately 45 minutes and chat with him. It was the first of several times I would get to meet and talk with Jerry…

…and although Jerry preferred to sit in the last row of the aircraft on that flight, we sat in the first class cabin — alone, with the curtain drawn for privacy so that we can talk without any interruptions. After that, we returned to the economy class cabin. Jerry was such a troublemaker on that flight with a dry sense of humor — what an instigator! — but I found my discussion with him to be inspiring. I still have my notes of that discussion somewhere; and I will consider finding them and sharing those notes with you in a future article here at The Gate if you are interested.

4. Denny Flanagan

Photograph courtesy of Denny Flanagan.

Photograph courtesy of Denny Flanagan.

You do not have to be the chief executive officer of an airline to demonstrate exemplary leadership. It is difficult for me to think of someone who encourages the heart more than that veteran pilot and captain at United Airlines who is popular amongst frequent fliers: Denny Flanagan. I believe that Jeff Smisek could have learned a lot from him alone.

Summary

Unfortunately, there are too many executives who simply do not possess or demonstrate the characteristics of leadership — and that is one of the major problems corporations currently face, in my opinion.

While it may be difficult to eventually become the chief executive officer of a major corporation, it is not difficult to emulate a leader and assume a leadership role. Being a leader could include being in charge; but being in charge does not necessarily make one a leader. In addition to taking charge when necessary, if you are honest, work hard and work smart, can set an example, are not afraid to take on risks; genuinely care about your colleagues and encourage them to collaborate, listen to ideas, give of yourself, admit and take responsibility for your mistakes and learn from them — and most of all, are trustworthy — you are already a leader…

…and people notice.

Brian Cohen and Jerry Grinstein seated in the first class cabin — temporarily — aboard a Boeing 757-232(WL) aircraft operated by Delta Air Lines on Tuesday, May 1, 2007. Photograph courtesy of Delta Air Lines.

One thought on “Leadership: Chief Executive Officers Should Read This Article Because…”

  1. Frank c says:

    Great article about leadership. I work at a company where “earn trust” is one of its key leadership principles, helps to drive behavior, and, allows people to push back when the behavior isn’t earning trust.

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