It was every CEOs nightmare: a viral video of a customer being treated like no one wants to be handled, on an airplane or anywhere else. But worse, several days passed before United Airlines’ Oscar Munoz publicly took responsibility for the events that occurred when an industry practice of overbooking collided with United’s need to move its crew.
During that short time, United’s public statements seemed to blame everyone but the company for a passenger bloodied while being dragged off their plane. Yes, United was in the right, according to federal rules and its internal practices. But the damning video supported what most of the flying public already knew: air travel is often an essential but unpleasant experience.
As United’s chief, Munoz fell victim to the biggest trap of the unconscious leader: wanting to be right, whatever the cost. And, the cost was steep from every vantage: United lost massive stock value overnight; Munoz saw his expected elevation to board chairman evaporate; and customers and employees both felt worse about the company.
Like many companies, United showed us that it organized itself to be reactive, not responsive—to operate from unconscious bias instead of considered wisdom. Something happens and the company reacts with blame and criticism until it gets so bad (falling stock prices, angry customers, etc.) that crisis communication kicks in. With United, three days in we finally saw a “buck stops here” message from Munoz to United’s customers and on news programs.
It didn’t have to be this way. Here are three ways United, and other companies, can use conscious leadership to respond effectively to any situation:
1. Radical Responsibility and Curiosity: After several days of growing backlash, Munoz finally released a letter to customers that was a great example of taking radical responsibility for what happened. It moved United out of a defensive commitment to being right and into curiosity and openness. As a conscious leader, taking responsibility—even when it looks like someone else’s fault—is a keystone practice that operates at every level of the company. Everyone is encouraged to ask: How am I creating this? What’s my role in this situation?
2. Experiencing the World as An Ally: Can Munoz and every United employee see David Dao and his refusal to leave United flight #3411 as an ally for helping them to learn what they could not learn any other way? This goes way beyond acquiescing to the impact of a viral video to shifting perspective to see how listening deeply to the unhappiest customers surfaces systemic problems.
As a leader, learning to see the world as your ally requires asking questions that challenge the pain of the current moment, questions like: In 20 years (or two) what will I say I learned from this? What part of this am I most resistant to?
According to United’s website, many factors created this perfect storm and the company is addressing the underlying issues, including changing internal policy on overbooking and compensation and giving employees more tools and authority to handle what’s actually happening in the moment, all in service of making the airline “more customer focused.” Beyond a list of actions, or the content, the United report also considers the context of this shift, seeking to “live up to our shared purpose and values of making decisions with empathy, respecting every voice and delivering what you expect and deserve.”
Content vs. Context is a critical ingredient of conscious leadership (click here to watch a quick video).
3. Practicing Integrity: While it’s tempting to jump on United’s integrity in this instance as a kind of morality test, conscious leaders see integrity as a practice of wholeness, of being in alignment with their deepest purpose. The practice for leaders is to direct all their life force toward their stated purpose. In this case, United’s practice of running on time and running efficient staffing levels collided with its stated purpose of treating customers well. Purpose and practice were not in alignment; integrity was breached and the cost was huge. In a very real sense, practicing integrity was not a moral issue for United, but an economic and organizational one.
United showed us the costs of business as usual: How about taking a chance to do something unusual with conscious leadership?