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When leadership is inhibited, there can be drastic results

“Communication and communication strategy is not just part of the game; it is the game.” This was what United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz said as he received his ‘Communicator of the Year’ award in March 2017. A few weeks later, the airline had lost $255 Million in value after forcibly removing a passenger to accommodate staff travellers.

Leadership has been a hot topic of late, with substantial debate surrounding how the executive management of United Airlines has handled the recent passenger handling issues. When looking at the surface level, United’s immediate response to the fiasco was poor. Rather than leading by action and taking responsibility for their decisions, it appeared as though the response was a reaction to the negative press exposure.

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”

Rather than leading by action and taking responsibility for their decisions, it appeared as though the response was a reaction to the negative press exposure.

Looking further into the issue, United appears to have a deeply embedded organisational culture that hinders leadership qualities, namely accountability at the executive management level and decision making at the employee level.

In terms of accountability, using the word ‘re-accommodate’ in the United Airlines statement indicates that they were defending a process that is a part of company policy. This indicates to the customer that if this was to happen again, United would have no issue with following the company procedure, even if it meant another customer being forcibly removed. As a potential customer, that is not something I would be willing to risk. Rather, United needed to show compassion for the customer, showing accountability that what they did was wrong and that their safety is our priority.

United Airlines, as an organisation, showed poor leadership qualities, highlighted by weak decision-making by the employees involved. Although customers were offered a small compensation for giving up their seat, it was not enough for one customer. The immediate decision for this was to call security, as there weren’t any alternatives established in the company policy. After losing $255 Million, I’m sure United Airlines would be questioning why staff wasn’t prepared to offer something that couldn’t be refused. It is likely this was due to employees feeling obliged to stay within their ‘decision-making boundaries’ which has inhibited their ability to show leadership. Had the boundaries been widened, this fiasco may not have happened.

What can you do to develop leadership?

There are several things you can do as a leader to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of your team. These include:

+  Learning what staff are passionate about and capitalising on this when assigning tasks
+  Establishing the expectations in terms of behaviours, culture and task completion at the outset
+  Being available to respond to questions, concerns and issues in a timely fashion
Understanding staff’s preferred communication styles (e.g. phone or email) and responding accordingly
Providing all staff with the opportunity to contribute to team strategies

If you would like to improve your leadership development, please contact TMS Consulting on

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TMS Consulting