United Airlines, Transparency and the Inner Wolf

This week United Airlines was the latest corporate brand to the slaughter. Like BP, Volkswagen, Uber and Sports Direct before it, the beleaguered airline was caught revealing its true heartless soul in the full glare of the media spotlight. The thin veil of corporate goodwill slipped and, in a sudden violent outburst, David Dao was dragged from his airline seat semi-conscious and with blood pouring from his mouth. The resultant video clips of the incident went viral, being watched by over 210 million people in China alone. In response, CEO, Oscar Munoz, showed his inner wolf by instinctively branding the victim ‘disruptive and belligerent’. 24 hours later he apologised having experienced a humbling ‘road to Damascus’ change of heart, which strangely coincided with a 4% drop in the airline’s share price. 

Is it any wonder that the Edelman Trust Barometer released in February showed the world of business teetering on the edge of net distrust with 48% of the 33,000 global respondents saying that they would not trust business leaders to ‘do what is right’- a figure that has fallen progressively over the last ten years? In this period, it is not so much that corporate behaviour has suddenly deteriorated but it is more the case that social media, diversity, globalisation and Gen Y have conspired together to produce a whirlwind of transparency. Researcher Fiammetta Borgia summed it up well when she said, ‘The transparency imperative is revealing the opaque lives of corporations. The more we know, the more we want to know and the more there seems to be to disclose’. Transparency has opened our eyes to the disturbing truth: the wolves have been hiding in full view. The 1 in 5 CEOs who we are told are corporate psychopaths have been getting away with it on our watch. No one likes being a mug and, whilst they say the truth will set you free, at first it makes you angry – very angry indeed!

united airlines david dao

In one of my own corporate roles, I was escorting a client CEO to the lift after a meeting. All was good in the world when I spied our own CEO coming in the opposite direction. The two CEOs met at the double door and got in a bit of a tangle. It was just at that moment that I heard my own CEO issue the immortal words, ‘just get out of my f-ing way’. His inner wolf had suddenly revealed itself. The mask had slipped. We never did business with that client again and my CEO never knew why. But I did. My eyes had been opened in the same way that another 210 million Chinese eyes opened last week upon watching the sorry tale of David Dao. Transparency is exposing the truth that ‘they’ only care about ‘us’ when the chips are down, when ‘they’ have to and when everyone is looking. Sadly, that is not care it all, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is expediency. It is borderline psychopathic.

What then must we do? We must do what we always have done – make a choice.

Choice 1 – Fly with United Airlines. Buy Volkswagen cars. Work for Sports Direct. And then when you get your chance to show how angry you are, vote for Brexit, vote for Trump. Push back the tide of globalisation. Push back the tide of transparency. Try to get back to the good old days. Only those days have gone. So get more angry. Get even. Exploit the system whenever you can. Create fake news. Become one of ‘them’. Chase it down to the bottom and hope you don’t get caught.

Or make a different choice.

Choice 2 – Take a stand. Vote with your feet. Turn your anger into a conviction and a commitment. A conviction to keep your eyes open and a commitment to be part of the solution. Start rebuilding the trust that has been lost. Open your heart. Start spreading the good news. Get on the pitch. Get excited. Repair the system wherever you can. Become one of ‘us’. Catch the wolf in yourself and free the wolf in ‘them’. At least then, even if we don’t succeed we will fail whilst ‘daring greatly’. At least then, unlike Oscar Munoz, we will not be caught out by this turning tide of transparency and, even if we are a disappointment to our wolf-like parents, we will not be a disappointment to our ever-hopeful children.

John explores the three pillars and nine habits of trust in his new book, ‘The Trusted Executive’ which has been shortlisted as the CMI book of the year. Available to order now via Amazon UK.

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