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.’”
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:
Model the way
Inspire a shared vision
Challenge the process
Enable others to act
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
“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
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.
…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.
“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
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.
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.
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.