Mark Ritson: United’s CEO makes a mockery of the word ‘leadership’

United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz gave a masterclass in what not to do when the carrier forcibly ejected a doctor from an overbooked flight. Leadership is about acting on decisions, not responding to PR crises.

United Airlines leadershipEverywhere you look these days you can find definitions, articles and whole speeches about what it takes to lead. Leaders are empathetic. Leaders are disruptive. Leadership means being agile. Leadership means staying fixed on one path. Leaders are friendly and aloof. Leaders are introverts and extroverts. Leaders are this. But they are also that. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Let me add to this increasingly confusing and convoluted area with my own helpful definition. Leaders have to fucking lead. I define leading as making a decision, not changing it, and then getting it done. Let me provide you with two case studies to illustrate this deep and nuanced argument.

Exhibit 1: United Airlines’ customer service

Let’s assume there is a CEO. Let’s call him – oh, I don’t know – Oscar. And let’s assume he’s the boss of an airline. I’ll call the airline United. And let’s create a scenario in which one of your passengers has boarded a flight from Chicago to Louisville.

Your company has sold this passenger a ticket. He has boarded the plane. But your company has ‘overbooked’ the flight. You had x number of seats but you sold x+n tickets because you’re greedy and because you assumed a few people, in this case incorrectly, would not turn up to fly. This is a particular problem on this flight, as you need to transport four off-duty members of the United flight crew on this plane, who are needed down in Louisville. But there are no spare seats.

READ MORE: What leadership qualities do marketers need to build the most effective team?

You ask for ‘volunteers’ to deplane, probably with the incentive of vouchers or air miles. Three passengers, like the 62,895 before them this year who did the same thing for United, take the offer and head for the exit. But you still need one more seat so, like the 3,765 other occasions in the past year, you select one particular passenger randomly – who in this case turns out to be an Asian-American doctor who needs to be in Louisville to treat patients in the morning – and ask him to depart the plane. When he refuses, pointing out his duty of care, three police officers are called and they drag him from his chair and then up the aisle, like a dead bear, with his bloodied face and half-naked torso for all to see.

Your four United employees appear and take the seats of the recently departed passengers to hoots of derision from a now thoroughly alarmed and angry plane-load of passengers. Suddenly, in a final twist to the scenario, the evicted doctor dashes back onto the plane and clings to the aircraft in a final attempt to make the flight. He repeats the words “just kill me, just kill me” over and over again.

This is modern, brand-centric leadership at its worst. More concerned with optics than actuals.

As other passengers begin to leave the plane in anger the doctor is forcibly removed, for a second time, only this time using a stretcher. UA 3411 takes off three hours later. Like most modern-day events this whole saga is captured on a smartphone and quickly circulated via social media and then mainstream mass media.

Ok, that’s the scenario. You are the CEO of United Airlines. You get paid just over $6m a year in salary benefits. Your brand purpose is ‘Connecting People, Uniting the World’. Your brand values are…wait for it…’We fly right, we fly friendly, we fly together, we fly above and beyond’. What should you do?

  1. Apologise for having to “re-accommodate” these customers
  2. Justify the process because it “followed established procedures”
  3. Refer to the passenger in question as “disruptive and belligerent”
  4. Call the event “horrific” and promise an immediate review of procedures

The correct answer is obviously 4. My six-year-old beagle could have worked that one out. Clearly the event is horrific. Clearly it will do enormous damage to United’s reputation and needs to be handled immediately. Clearly everything in the airline’s brand promise and brand values scream, like a doctor being evicted from a plane, that United should be the last airline on the planet to randomly and violently evict customers from their planes because of an error that they made.

But that’s not the answer if you want to lead a company the Oscar Muñoz way. Oh no. Muñoz is the actual CEO of United Airlines and he gets the big bucks because he has a more advanced, multifaceted approach to leadership. What Oscar Muñoz did between late Sunday night when the event occurred and Tuesday morning was all of the above. Every single one of them.

With various tweets and internal emails, Muñoz ran the gamut of modern leadership by making pretty much every single possible decision. If option 5 had existed and consisted of ‘blaming the economy’ you can bet there would have been a tweet excoriating the financial situation. This is modern, brand-centric leadership at its worst. More concerned with optics than actuals. More informed by internal PR teams than humanity or strategic responsibility.

Let us now contrast this pathetic, confused, morale-shredding, share price-killing approach to leadership with a different kind of approach. Let us move to our next case study.

Exhibit 2: Tesla’s Elon Musk

You are the CEO of a large manufacturer of electrically powered cars. Let’s call you Elon, and your company goes by the name Tesla.

You receive a tweet from a customer complaining about the time it takes to charge his Tesla at his local supercharger station. The customer in question, Loic Le Meur, is getting sick of waiting for a slot at the supercharger while other patrons, whose Tesla is already full charged, continue to shop or eat at the other retailers situated around the supercharger station in San Carlos, California.

If you are Elon, what do you do?

  1. Apologise for the long delays
  2. Justify the wait as reasonable given Tesla’s popularity
  3. Refer to the tweet’s author as overly critical and unrealistic
  4. Call the situation unpopular and look into it

The correct answer is probably option 4. But that’s not what Elon Musk, the actual CEO of Tesla did. He didn’t follow any of the options above. Instead, Musk tweeted back to Le Meur 20 minutes later. His tweet was as simple as it was direct:

Then, just six days after Le Meur’s initial complaint, Tesla announced a new policy for all its Supercharger stations around the World. Once a Tesla is fully charged a continued fee of 40¢ a minute applies to encourage drivers to return to their cars and move them on. Sorted.

I hope my two case studies illustrate my point about leaders doing a bit of fucking leadership every now again. Rather than wanking about worrying about empathy and inspiration and crafting a brand purpose that looks groovy, the job of being a big brand leader is really much simpler than many would have you believe. Step one: make decisions. Step two: execute them. Step three: go back to step one.

United Airlines is, in my humble experience, a joke of an airline. But if there is one positive they can take from the embarrassing events of the past week it’s that they appear to have a perfect CEO to fit their culture and approach to business.

Mark Ritson will debate Byron Sharp, author of How Brands Grow, about the strengths and weaknesses of his seminal marketing book at the Festival of Marketing in London in October. Click here to book tickets.



There are 17 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Brandy Mc Brand TM 12 Apr 2017

    5. Develop a new high powered ejector seat system

  2. dinger 12 Apr 2017

    6. Tesla Airlines

  3. malcolm wicks 12 Apr 2017

    7. Replace the “p” in leadership with a “t”

  4. James Knight 12 Apr 2017

    ‘wanking about worrying about empathy and inspiration and crafting a brand purpose that looks groovy’ Top notch line.

    Enjoyed the read Mark cheers

  5. Rob Langtry 13 Apr 2017

    United demonstrates the complete absence of common sense (and empathy) in what can only be a toxic corporate culture. Musk the opposite.
    Thanks Mark.

  6. Zbiggy Ucinek 13 Apr 2017

    Great post. My opinion is given that so many people seem more concerned having the title, rather than doing the job. Reckon for so many bosses the acronym CIO rather than CEO be used. Namely Chief Idiot Officer.

  7. Becky Davies 13 Apr 2017

    Really enjoyed this article, easy to read yet insightful and completely agree with yourself on the topic

  8. Richard 14 Apr 2017

    Whilst Munoz has handled this much as a Ming vase would probably be handled by an ape, (and as much as I love you, Mark) this feels like a fairly reductive view of leadership, and potentially a slightly unfair comparison. Musk’s situation feels like fairly garden-variety customer service issue which he took an active decision to engage with, whereas the UA incident is fairly unprecedented and put Munoz in a close-to-impossible situation, albeit one he handled like a clown. Secondly, Munoz’s wider leadership skills have generated a suitcase of cash for his shareholders over the last year, whereas Tesla has been busy giving its accountants a series of embolisms.

  9. Claire 14 Apr 2017

    Brilliant !! 100% on point !!

  10. cubumojep 14 Apr 2017


  11. Ashish srivastava 16 Apr 2017

    These two case studies are worlds apart. The magnitude and complexity of the United crisis in no way compares to a whiny customer at a supercharger station.
    I agree with the overall premise that leaders should just lead and stop playing the PR games but I don’t agree with supporting argument on Musk. Munoz was better off sticking to profusely apologizing while executing policy changes and offering compensations but he pulled a Sean Spicer

  12. Shanghai61 17 Apr 2017

    “Shut the fuck up, or we’ll re-accommodate your ass”

  13. Shanghai61 18 Apr 2017

    New definition of ‘Fly the Friendly Skies’:
    “Get off the fucking plane, before we re-accommodate your ass”

  14. MARYLOU MCNALLY 18 Apr 2017

    Great post Mark but my 4-year-old poodle is just a little bit smarter than your beagle because she pointed out that #4 is incorrect (in both cases). A true leader doesn’t name the situation as horrible and promise a review, you first apologize authentically, then actually launch a review and operational corrections — transparently. I absolutely agree with your beagle that this is a masterclass in how not to be a leader. But I disagree that a leader names the problem and makes promises. Even as first steps these only make the problem worse. A true leader will take immediate steps to completely transform the culture at United before another “horrible” happens.

  15. David Ward 18 Apr 2017

    I agree with Marylou Mcnally. However, transforming the culture will take time when most commentators and customers will expect to see swift action.

    Other options open to the CEO are:

    5. Fire the idiot who sanctioned the forceful removal of the customer.
    6. Ask the employees who took the vacated seats why they did not intervene. A poodle, beagle (or any other four-legged animal) could see this was an ugly and damaging event, unraveling before their eyes. Each employer should be empowered to step in and defend the brand’s values.
    7. Resign in shame and let some more empathetic person lead the company.

  16. Lou Lozada 18 Apr 2017

    Reminds me of the time CISCO, with their then-‘”The Human Network” tagline, threatened to sue me, cause I was posting online updates of a conference I was hired to document, in Miami.

    Think about that one for a moment: CISCO. The Human Network. Online updates. Threatened lawsuit.

    I think their next tagline was “Tomorrow Starts Here.”

    Should have been “Tomorrow Starts Tomorrow.”

    Experiences like this are what convinced me to abandon my advertising creative career – even after winning tons of awards.

  17. Elizabeth Hirst 21 Apr 2017

    “More informed by internal PR teams than humanity or strategic responsibility”?! “Playing the PR games”?!! On what planet does “PR” involve making the worst possible public relations decisions? Which are – and should always be – in line with the best strategic leadership decisions. A little respect for a profession so closely related to marketing, please! I make a point of telling my public relations students that “marketing” does NOT mean a company cares more about selling stuff than about its relationships with the public.

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