Textbook Authentic Leadership — It starts with kindness.
Full disclosure: I have Premiere 1K Status, and over a million miles flown, on United Airlines. I am not affiliated in any way with American Airlines, or Southwest Airlines. I do not know any of the folks mentioned here, but I’m so glad it appeared in my social media feed today.
This is a great example of authentic leadership.
A message from American Airlines CEO Doug Parker while flying on Southwest.
May 31, 2020
In light of all that is happening across the United States, we thought it would be meaningful to share this note Doug sent to American’s officers this weekend. As background, every day a different officer writes a short, emailed summary to the company’s leadership team outlining what they did that day or week to Create an Environment that Cares for Frontline Team Members. Below is Doug’s note.
A quick confession — I flew Southwest yesterday. I needed to get to Panama City, FL and all of our seats were sold out! But I’m glad I did, because I had a remarkable encounter.
As I sat in the boarding area I was suddenly thankful for the facial coverings, because no one recognized me (I’m not sure they would have anyway, but my ego attributed it to the mask). As I prepared to board, I pulled the book I wanted to read inflight from my backpack. The book is White Fragility — the book Marty Nesbitt recommended to Elise and that both she and Maya had recommended to all of us. It is fantastic — challenging, and educational — but I’m embarrassed to say I had only gotten halfway through it before the crisis hit, and hadn’t picked it up since. The horrific and senseless death of George Floyd reminded me there were bigger issues in our world than coronavirus, so I packed the book for the trip.
I boarded the aircraft and found an empty row in the back. I put the book in the seat pocket, logged into WiFi and began reading and sending emails without opening the book.
About an hour into our 90-minute flight, the flight attendant from the front of the aircraft leaves her position and walks back to me in row 25 and sits down in the aisle seat. My ego again assumes she has recognized me, mask and all, and wants to know why I’m flying Southwest.
But, no, she has no idea who I am. She is a young, black woman and she points at the book lodged in my seat pocket and asks, “How do you like that book?” I say it’s fantastic and defensively show her how I’m a bit past midway. She says, “It’s on my list to read and I saw you bring it onboard and I just wanted to talk to you….” And then she started to cry.
I felt wholly inadequate but I knew it was a special moment. The best I could do was tell her that the book talks about how white people are horrible at talking about racism, and that what we need are real conversations. She agreed. I told her I was trying to learn and through tears and a mask, she said, “So am I.”
We talked for a good ten minutes and it was an absolute gift to me. Toward the end, I felt compelled to tell her what I did for a living. I’m not sure why, but it seemed like I should tell this WN flight attendant (JacqueRae) that had sought me out, that I worked in the business, too. I’m glad I did, because she gasped and told me her mother works for us in DCA. Then she started to cry again and leaned across the middle seat and hugged me. She thanked me for listening and then went back up front as we prepared for descent.
Before we deplaned, I had a wonderful email from her mother, Patti, thanking me for comforting her daughter. I had done nothing, of course. JacqueRae was the brave one. I was sitting comfortably in the back sending you guys emails without thinking twice about what this young woman — and others like her — were going through. She was a gift to me.
I did my best to explain that to JacqueRae in a note I scribbled out on descent. Then I replied to Patti’s email. I’m just going to copy my note to her here, because it relays my emotions about this as best I can:
Your daughter’s visit was a gift to me. She is a special young woman. She had the courage to approach me only because I was reading a book on racism in America. She, like most all of us, is questioning how we got to this spot and why we can’t be better. Her kind heart and open-mindedness were evident — you raised her well.
I had no answers other than to tell her we all need to talk about it more. She certainly left an impression on me. Reading a book is one thing — spending time with a kind, strong, young black woman who is hurting and trying to learn from others is another thing altogether.
After we’d talked for a while, I felt like I should tell her what I did for a living. The conversation was even more impactful when we realized we had you as a connection. (How did we let her go to Southwest?)
Thank you for thanking me, but trust me, I was the one who was blessed by that conversation. I am better for it and more resolved to do what I can to make the world better for people like her (and people like me). Thank you!
These are trying times. Our people are hurting. I’m not certain what all of the answers are, but I know it involves talking to each other. And listening. And it takes courage and leadership to start the conversation and to stand up for what is right. JacqueRae taught me all that.
Please get out and talk to your teams today. Bring people together, not apart. We need caring leadership now more than ever. Thanks.
The world needs more examples like this one from JacqueRae and Doug.