United Airlines – The Lesson For You From A Failed Leadership Culture

Like most of us, I watched the United Airlines debacle and wondered how could this happen?

After the personal indignation, I started to think about the leadership and the workplace culture that allowed this to spiral out of control.

United has a crappy reputation: they treat customers as an expense not as paying clients and certainly not as people. That said, they did not act illegally by asking the passenger to leave the plane and part of their business plan is to overbook planes and hope that not all passengers show up.

The rest, as they say, is history.

While most focused on the horrible situation on the plane, I wondered about the leadership culture that allowed the United team to mindlessly follow the rules without a care for the passengers or the company.

I can imagine the conversation between management and frontline staff trying to create space on the full plane …

Employee: ‘We offered as much as we are allowed, but can’t get anyone else off the plane.’

Supervisor: “I don’t care, you do whatever you have to get that damn seat.’

Employee: ‘Sir, we went on the plane and asked again, but no one will leave.’

Supervisor: ‘Listen you, we need that seat and right now. It is our plane and If no one leaves call security.’

Employee: ‘But, what if we try this …’

Supervisor: ‘What did I just tell you! Meet the standard or look for another job!’

What Can You Do To Avoid Something Similar Happening?

It sounds like an organization hide-bound by procedures, policies and fear.

To prevent something similar you need to understand that it starts with you, the leader. The leader sets the expected standards, and everything flows from there.

Be a great leader and trust your people by pushing power, problem-solving authority to the front line and people will do the best for your clients, your organization and you.

Create a great culture, and you will develop great people. Be ordinary, ask little of yourself, and the opposite will occur. It all starts with you.

A positive culture can have a huge impact on your organization’s long-term performance.

Jim Collins (2001) explains that discipline and positive culture is what makes the difference between the world’s top businesses.

Your disciplined focus on culture and the upholding of standards will lead to an empowered and more engaged workforce.

Empowered and engaged workforce leads to increased productivity which in turn leads to increased profit.

Could you be sure that where United Airlines went wrong could not happen in your organization?

What do you have to do to set the standards?