Don’t we all hate to be delayed on a flight by one looney passenger refusing to cooperate with the crew? Getting increasingly impatient, we act as calm as we can, waiting for that passenger (or group of passengers) to behave themselves. At moments like these, you wish that law was applied quickly and that we would be spared any extra waiting. As United Airlines found out, while handling this kind of situation, every issue has its context. Leadership is about assessing each event for context and applying relevant action. Every staff member a client engages with on behalf of the company shows some level of leadership (or lack of). With every one of those outcomes, the image of the brand/ company is changed, sometimes forever.

Photo by Hanson Lu

Leading through any crisis is first a matter of observation, analysis of the nuances of that situation before a decision. Executives are too quick to make “a statement” by how they handle a situation. Don’t be too quick to show strength to preserve your influence; there’s no shame in “being vulnerable”.

My Rule must be Obeyed.

In April 2017, the CEO of United Airlines had to respond to the fallout of a passenger being dragged off the plane by security for failing to comply with the flight crew. The crew had asked him to vacate his seat for a staff of the airline to board. I know how subordinates are placed in impossible situations and “forced” to act decisively because the boss has given firm demands. This staff was needed for some company project in the next city so he had to board. That passenger (who happened to be a medical doctor rushing for a hospital appointment) needed to be dropped.

Boss, there’s a problem, the flight is fully booked, and “Jude” can’t make it for the project. Response? Fix it! Now!! No excuses! A few scuffs later, that passenger was yanked out of his seat and pulled out of the plane like a thief. Smartphones did their duty, and minutes later, it was trending in the media. The CEO had to react. At this point, he had a few options before him, respond with empathy or with strength. I don’t know why it appears easier to portray strength as the first and (most often) only response. Most of those press releases typically contain the text “we are following policy and observing industry standards”, forgetting that this situation may call for some “out of the box thinking based on its unique circumstance.

In the statement released by the CEO, he explained it was deeply “regrettable” but “necessary”. He added that the security officials had to take that forceful action because they “were unable to gain his (the passenger’s) cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist”.

The reactions (from other passengers, the public and the media) was obviously negative. Shortly after, the CEO was forced to step down with his ego bruised.

All Personality or Policy.

Too often, we lead with ourselves. By that I mean, your leadership reveals your personality. If all you have is your ego, then that’s what you will lead with. There’s a danger with leading with your ego; it’s contagious. Soon teams are beginning to carry out actions without context, completely detached from the uniqueness of the present situation. However, in this case, they said they were following policy. “Policy” is usually a cover for structures, systems and processes without “heart”. If you interpret every policy like LAW, then you will only have robots as staff and enemies as clients. Robots, like the bunch who decided to treat this passenger as a criminal. He paid for his flight, he arrived on time, he followed the rules and was seated in his seat, yet he was wrong based on company policy.

If you interpret every company policy like the law then you will only have robots as staff and enemies as clients.

Empathy, context and perspective are required in handling similar situations. This is mostly because no two events are the same. In the case of this passenger being removed, it was United’s error and not his. He had boarded the flight rightly and wasn’t in error. On the other hand, United had overbooked the flight and now had the difficult job of managing previous instructions from “leadership” to get the “staff” on that flight without fail. Under a different leadership and working environment, the extra staff could have waited for any other flight, or the company could have offered an incentive for anyone willing to un-board on their own free will.

Was overbooking the plane a failure of policy? Very likely. However, these things can happen, and hopefully, they don’t happen too often. The response to the overbooking is the test of the “heart” of the policy and the quality of leadership.

Plenty policy documents don’t make great companies.

Ego: The Other Non-Functional Requirement.

As a startup founder, you should expect situations like these, though different. Let’s take the process of developing products that solve problems for clients. Under great leadership, development processes are enjoyable and energetic. However, that comes from understanding what MVPs (minimum viable products) are minimal but viable. When you tell an ego-filled boss that the best way to deliver this product is piecemeal, beginning with a bare-function MVP, you better prepare to explain for days, weeks or more. In such organizations, the product isn’t just about the problem it hopes to solve; more importantly, it has to meet the bosses ego-goals. Building up with iterations may be interpreted as “reputational losses” (code for I won’t be able to brag about this). To such a leader, the product must be complete, and it must make a splash.

Many bosses don’t like the idea of such approaches because of non-functional ego-centric goals, which place thrills over functionality. Look at the MVP products of Facebook and Twitter to see how uninspiring these products were back when released to the public. They were barely functional but functional enough to solve that basic need. If they were all about their egos, they would have waited to release these products to the market. On several projects, I have seen egos lead development projects into the ground, delay project delivery and abort market leadership.

You don’t build a great product or company around your ego. #EasyFail

My Ego is My Responsibility.

I am responsible for checking my ego. No one is responsible for pointing it out to me. Staff aren’t there to risk their jobs telling you who you are and what environment you are creating. You owe yourself that self-assessment, regularly and objectively.

Rarely have others, who are seemingly beneath us, been able to help us see us.

Often, only the near failure or complete failure of the project can help an egocentric leader look into the “mirror” and fix what they see and how they lead.