How Leaders Become “Out of Touch”

 In Pei Blog

What can we learn about leadership from the recent United Airlines fiasco?

The second chapter of my new book and guide, Facing the Demands of Leadership, deals with “seeking regular feedback.”  If I had to list one reason why feedback is important, it would be that:

Feedback helps us to be more in touch with reality.

In April 2017, United Airlines faced a public relations nightmare, when a security officer forcibly dragged a customer from his seat.  The situation was only made worse when CEO Oscar Munoz didn’t directly apologize to the passenger in his first two statements, but commended his employees (not the security guards) for going “above and beyond” in their efforts.

Predictably, social media and the public were outraged at the incident, but also at Munoz’s response.  People look at leadership in variety of ways, but there was no debate here that everyone expected their leaders to do two things: face reality, and take responsibility.

Munoz did neither in this first two statements, but he eventually issued a third statement that did directly apologize to Mr. David Dao, the passenger who was forcibly removed.  But how could Munoz have become so out of touch with reality, hearing all the outrage of the people and seeing the video footage on cell phones?  It’s not that Munoz lacked skill — just one month earlier, he had been named “Communicator of the Year” by PR Week!

There are probably a mixture of reasons for this, but it struck me that Munoz went immediately into defensive mode – and this is common among leaders, when facing a mistake or failure.  When we feel under threat or attack, we can go into “reactive” mode.  In this state, I’ve noticed that an emotional defensiveness tends to override all the communication skill and “EQ” ability in the world.  Take a look at the more polarizing issues of politics, religion, and race… there’s no lack of skilled communicators in those fields, but there’s also plenty of defensiveness, reactivity, and name-calling.

I’ve been there myself many times.  I write and create a lot of material and ideas, and so in some ways I’m always under the microscope.  I still remember times when I got feedback or critique that stung, and how I wanted to defend myself at all costs.  I remember feeling the embarrassment of others seeing my early design prototypes, or hearing of field tests that didn’t go that well.  It’s hard to face disapproval or rejection on any level, especially when we’ve invested so much into a project or organization.

That’s why I believe that seeking feedback, rather than waiting for it to be delivered to us, can help us take small steps towards growth and character.  As I continue to write and create material, I’ve learned to submit my ideas early in the process to people, before they have a chance to be too developed.  That way, I’m not as attached to the project yet, and expect that it’s not perfect and has lots of room to grow.  Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, discusses this in his book, Creativity, Inc. – where they form creative groups that get in the habit of tossing out unpolished ideas to one another for feedback and refinement.

It’s an initiative approach, rather than a defensive one.  But it gives us the experience and practice of being in touch with the reality of what other people think, and their experience of us.

One of the points I appreciate most about the book Integrity, is that it explains that “integrity” isn’t just about being honest, kind, and ethical.  It’s also about being in touch with reality.  There are so many leaders in this world who are incredibly kind, generous, and charismatic – but are simply not in touch with reality. 

I once met a young man who was incredibly gifted, and would always talk about grand business ideas and plans.  But he could never follow through with anything!  He would plan a meeting or retreat, and then cancel it at the last minute.  He would start a website, and it would never get finished.  But even with all of this, it seemed his visions and plans would continue to grow bigger and grander.  He was a great guy, but simply wasn’t in touch with reality.

If you’re looking to grow to become more in touch with reality, the simplest path is to start by seeking feedback from the people around you.

The more we as leaders are willing to face the realities about ourselves, the more we will ultimately grow and succeed.

If you’re like me, you might have received a recent e-mail entitled, “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” from United Airlines and Munoz with a thoughtful apology and pledge to do better.  Words do matter as well, and let’s hope that United uses this fiasco as an opportunity to learn some lessons and change things for the better.

If you’re motivated to learn more with others about the topic of feedback in leadership, check out my latest leadership book and discussion guide, Facing the Demands of Leadership, or my book The Art of Growing Through Feedback.  Thanks for reading!

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