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“Doing the right thing, for safety” and for the company

Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines, spoke on CBS This Morning yesterday about the steps they have taken regarding vaccine mandates, managing unruly passengers, and rewarding employees for their commitment and engagement. Throughout his interview, he demonstrated perfectly the three rules of great leadership:


Give your people:

  • Something to believe in
  • Someone to believe in, and
  • Someone who believes in them

All of the airlines are struggling with the issues linked to vaccines, employment shortages, systems maintenance, and passenger disruption. And clearly some are faring better than others. Southwest has had the most obvious recent challenges, but many of the major airlines are under water regarding their staffing and logistics.

Not United. In a short eight weeks, they have vaccinated the overwhelming majority of their employees, and given all employees a $1,000 bonus.  In contrast to the other major airlines, a mere 232 United employees are continuing to refuse to get vaccination. Kirby’s rationale was clear. He watched dozens of employees die from COVID and wrote a letter to each family member. But then, “The second time I got notified of an employee [dying from COVID-19] …I walked around for half an hour and finally called our team and said, ‘enough is enough,'” he told CBS. “We can do something about this, we believe in safety. And weeks later, we got 99.7% of our employees vaccinated,” he said.

Why is United doing so much better than their competitors on vaccination rates? His description of the initiative his company has launched was on the mark (I’m paraphrasing): “If you treat people with respect, if you listen to their concerns, and explain to them why the steps we are taking are in the best interests of them and the company, the overwhelming majority do the right thing for safety.”

And for the company, it seems.

Kirby is not just asking for things from his employees. He has also banned 700 passengers from flying on United for life for refusing to wear a mask on a flight. He has trained his flight crews to de-escalate the situations but has made it clear there are consequences for not following the company safety guidelines. Kirby is also investing in the company. In June, they purchased 270 new jets, for something in the range of $15 billion.

United has struggled over the past few years, coming in in the bottom half of major airlines for reliability (Bureau of Transportation Statistics). Kirby has taken the challenges created by COVID-19 and is clearly using it to rebrand and re-position the company to put its customers and its employees at the top of the priority list. A leading indicator is the recruiting advantage Kirby has created by mandating the vaccine.

Building a brand and a reputation is critical to the success of any organization. The best way to do this is by demonstrating personal integrity, commitment to the mission and the people, and a clear path to the future.  Based on Kirby’s actions in the past few months, he is making the right moves, for his people and for the company.