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Apr 20, 201709:05 AMOpen Mic

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United Airlines lives in values fantasyland

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By now everyone knows what United Airlines did last week. But most people don’t know why. There’s been a lot of talk on algorithms and over-booking, but the real reason is plain and simple. United’s CEO lives in a values fantasyland.

United clearly has a culture of “nobody cares about passengers” or this incident could never have happened. On its website, United claims one of its core values is “warm and welcoming.” And another is that they “make decisions with facts and empathy.”

This is just another example of a company that has what I call “bumper sticker” values. “Bumper sticker” values look good in an annual report. “Bumper sticker” values make the CEO feel warm and fuzzy. United isn’t the only company that lives in a values fantasyland. Wells Fargo is another example. They claim they “do what’s right for the customer,” yet in actual practice they defrauded customers. Uber claims it is an inclusive company, yet it has a toxic culture.

The CEO is often unaware of the disconnect between the bumper sticker and real values of the company. They often don’t recognize that until a crisis occurs. When a crisis does occur, the CEO is oftentimes asked to step down. In most cases, they should. It is the CEO’s job to create positive cultures, not to defend toxic ones.

But that is just what Oscar Muñoz did last week. His initial response was to defend his employees. Do you know why? Because he drank the Kool-Aid and believed the bumper sticker that the United culture is “warm and welcoming.” Since he believed his employees are always “warm and welcoming,” of course he would conclude the passenger was in the wrong. A perfect example of a CEO living in a values fantasyland.

If you are a CEO, it’s time for a hard look to see if are you living in a values fantasyland before a United-like disaster strikes you.


Apr 21, 2017 08:14 am
 Posted by  RandyKing

Thanks, Steve. I am reminded of the thin little book "Leadership Is An Art" by Max DePree from many years ago. It's summed up in the adage/question "Was the Millwright a poet, or was the poet a millwright?".

It was in response to an employee's passing and how the CEO handled it. Max showed us that CLEARLY values emanate from the very top of an organization and the only role of those below the top was to carry those values and live those values.

Your characterization of "bumper sticker values" is perfect. I once flew over a million miles with United (not all at once) and I watched the degradation of compassion over the years as attention turned from core values to profit values.

Thanks for the thoughtful words.

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