Finding a way to avoid leadership breakdown

The headlines are egregious and the viral videos evoke a visceral reaction. United Airlines employees drag a passenger off the plane, and the CEO’s initial public response describes it as a “re-accommodation.”

Wells Fargo employees open accounts for customers without their knowledge — thousands of them so they can meet aggressive sales incentive goals — and the CEO says the “ethical lapse” among those 5,300 employees “did not honor our culture.” The Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania and his wife reportedly treated their state police security detail and service staff poorly. Shortly after, Gov. Tom Wolf stripped them of their official security detail and reduced their service staff.

What is happening to leadership? What is expected of those who are accountable for public companies and public policies? As an executive coach who has developed and studied leaders for the past 30 years, these examples are deep and disturbing signs of leadership breakdown. And it’s the kind of breakdown that has immediate effects on employees, shareholders and communities.

Recently, I was privileged to attend the annual Strategy Conference at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The conference is a unique, inspiring gathering of War College students along with some of the country’s brightest and most talented strategic thinkers.

One of the speakers was John Robb, author, military analyst and an expert on the future of conflict. His most recent blog post is about the United Airlines crisis and the series of mistakes leadership made along the way — mistakes so severe they lowered the airline’s stock valuation by $1.4 billion in one day, damaged customer satisfaction and reputation, and forever changed the way flyers will view United Airlines.

From the time the crew that needed seats arrived, until four individuals including Dr. Dao were selected and asked to deplane, the process was driven by authoritarian decisions determined by an algorithm. It was a cascading series of poor decisions based on pre-set rules. Humans who could have made better decisions did not have the authority to change the process — even for a better outcome. It’s hard to believe decisions involving human beings were made solely based on data, but as Albert Einstein famously said, “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

The United crisis points to a breakdown in leadership at the highest level. The CEO’s response lacked empathy and demonstrated a total lack of self-awareness. My bet is that if civility were part of the United Airlines training, along with basic common-sense decision making, we would never have heard of Dr. Dao or this incident.

Great CEOs need leaders at every level in their organizations. Regardless of employee rank, each member of an organization should be empowered to use common sense, in accordance with company policies and guidelines, to make the right decisions to produce more positive outcomes. Initially, the United CEO praised his employees for following procedures. He then immediately backpedaled and apologized for this response.

A good leader should have known better and understood the proper response required to calm the customer and resolve the situation. Had United extended Dr. Dao civility with a touch of humanness and used their own creativity to adjust to the situation as it unfolded, there would have been a much better outcome.

The boards of directors of United and Wells Fargo have instituted swift internal changes to protect against any recurrence of these situations. And Gov. Wolf responded quickly to reports concerning the Lieutenant Governor’s behavior, demonstrating it would not be tolerated or accommodated. Although these three examples are appalling, I believe that the majority of leaders would not act or behave in a way that would injure a customer or demean their position.

How do we solve the problem? Acknowledging the breakdowns in leadership is the first step; offering solutions is a second positive step toward ensuring they aren’t repeated. Today’s business coaches and executives must pour resources and experiences into rising leaders, equipping them to make better decisions, and produce strong, positive results. We want to prepare them to lead their teams in making tough decisions — even in crisis situations — with a level of civility, self-awareness and integrity that never allows a disconnect from the people they serve.

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