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Leadership Lessons – A Case Study of the United Airlines Incident


I have been watching the United Airlines debacle unfold with very mixed emotions.

How could this happen? It has made me think more about leadership and workplace culture, and how important it is in any industry – including the healthcare industry.

United Airlines does not have a good reputation as an airline that cares. They don’t have a corporate culture that is designed to treat their customers as people. It is a cheap carrier and that is how they do business.

The way the situation unfolded and the subsequent response from the CEO was nothing less than appalling.

Just to put this in perspective, United Airlines are not acting illegally by asking the passenger to leave the plane. They conduct business by overbooking the planes and hope that not all passengers show up (I am not agreeing with this practice, but it happens.)

When all passengers show up, as was the case on this day, they are legally allowed to ask them to leave. Don’t ask me how all the passengers got on the plane, as I have no idea.

The passengers were asked to volunteer to leave and were offered compensation of $400. No takers.

They were then offered $800. The passenger that was injured in the event allegedly offered to leave the plane with his wife and then found he could not get another flight that would get him to his destination in time, so then refused to leave (Gunter 2017).

What happened next is in the video that you can watch here. Warning: the contents may be confronting. It shows the man being dragged along the floor of the plane, with blood visible on his face from where his head had been knocked in the process.

The response from the CEO after the incident was one of blame. He did not acknowledge the brutality displayed by security and police. He came across as insensitive and not trying to make the best of a terrible situation. The workers on the plane were never empowered to offer more money, which may have prevented the situation from escalating.

The CEO has now moved into damage control and is saying the company will do whatever it takes so that this will never happen again.

I feel for the passenger and his family, as well as the other passengers and the staff on the plane.

What is in question is:

  • How United Airlines reacted
  • How they handled the situation
  • Why a better apology was not offered
  • What makes the team mindlessly follow rules without caring for the person
  • What happened during and after the incident
  • Were United in their right to take the passenger of the plane?; and
  • How they allowed the situation to escalate.

What Healthcare Leadership Lessons Can we Take from the Incident?

In a health environment, mistakes happen. We have all made or been involved with some.

If this type of situation happened in your health environment, what do you think would happen? What would you like to see happen?

Leadership covers many things, but they all come back to one major point: you are there to support your team.

Under the right leadership, teams will:

  1. Seek to challenge their own beliefs and attitudes about what’s possible
  2. Own their role
  3. Boost their personal performance
  4. Find more job satisfaction
  5. Be encouraged to contribute to the improvements and innovations in the organisation
  6. Learn to solve problems in a way that demonstrates good judgement and thought for consequences
  7. Be allowed to think of others and the impact their decisions have on them

This form of high-impact leadership encourages innovative thinking and empowers the team to ‘own’ not just their own performance, but also the outcomes for the entire team.

Think about the type of leadership United Airlines displayed. Compare it to the type of leadership in your organisation or the kind of leader you are and how you influence your team.

Think about the standards that you expect as a leader, and what you want to see in your organisation.

Great people want to improve themselves and want to contribute. Great team members want to be useful, contribute to the team (or the organisation), and they will find themselves feeling deflated if the culture they find themselves in is not matched to that.

So Where Does Success in Your Organisation or Team Start?

Does it start with getting great people? Does it start with having a great culture? Or, does it start with having great leadership?

I think it starts with the leader. The leaders set the standards and everything flows from there.

Be a great leader and you’ll have a great culture and be able to recruit great people. Be ordinary and ask little of yourself, and the opposite will occur. It all starts with you.

What standards do you expect? Be clear on the standards and what is non-negotiable. “This is the standard. Meet the standard or look for another job.

Some of us have been fortunate enough to experience a positive, healthy and upbeat culture, and we ‘get’ it’s better that way. Research supports this (Seppala & Cameron 2015).

A positive culture can have a significant impact on an organisation’s long-term performance.  Jim Collins (2001) explains that discipline and positive culture is what makes the difference between the world’s top businesses.

I know some people will say that health is not a business, though I will challenge that assumption and say that health organisations still have huge budgets to manage and teams to support. A disciplined focus on culture and the upholding of particular standards will lead to a happier and more engaged workforce.

A happy and engaged workforce = increased productivity = increased profit.

Can you see where United Airlines went wrong?

What needs to change in your organisation?

What needs to change in you as a leader and in setting the standards?

Try it on and see what happens. Think about what other lessons we can learn from this terrible incident and ensure it does not happen in your environment.

Related: United Airlines, A PR Disaster – Lessons for Healthcare Professionals

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