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With 22 Words, the CEO of United Airlines Taught a Bold Lesson in Leadership

Date: October 10, 2021

BY BILL MURPHY JR., INC

This is a short story about a big decision at United Airlines.

It all starts with what Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines, told United employees back in January. It ends, at least for now, with what several competing airlines did in recent days.

On January 21, Kirby held a town hall with United employees, during which he told them that pretty soon, in his opinion, it wasn't going to be up to individual employees to decide whether or not they wanted to get vaccinated against Covid-19:

"[F]or me, because I have confidence in the safety of the vaccine--and I recognize it's controversial. I think the right thing to do is for United Airlines, and for other companies, to require the vaccines and to make them mandatory."

I've highlighted 22 key words from this statement. Remember, this was fairly early in our long, national vaccine controversy. The FDA had only approved an emergency authorization for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines the month before, and there were nowhere near enough doses available for everyone who wanted or needed them.

It also wasn't at all clear what the future of air travel would look like, although most airline executives seemed to agree that widespread vaccine acceptance was going to be key to the recovery.

Regardless, Kirby was one of the few big company CEOs talking seriously about mandates for employment back then. And sure enough, in August, United announced it would require all of its 67,000 U.S. employees to get vaccinated or risk losing their jobs, standing more or less alone at that moment.

In fact, the CEOs of other rival airlines like Southwest and American Airlines went on the record saying that they had no such plans. But just two months later, United's competitors are starting to follow its lead.

Last week, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and JetBlue said most employees who haven't been vaccinated by November 24, the day before Thanksgiving, will lose their jobs. Then Southwest Airlines followed suit.

That basically leaves Delta Air Lines as the only holdout, aside from regional carriers. 

The other big airlines generally cited President Joe Biden's order requiring all government contractors to mandate employee vaccinations, on the grounds that the airlines are themselves contractors.

Reportedly, Southwest's pilots are now suing their airline over the mandate, and employees at American have started protesting. (However, United says that only 232 of its employees have refused to comply, and face termination as a result).

Now, we all know that employer vaccine mandates are among the most controversial issues in America today. Frankly, that's why I think Kirby deserves credit for standing first, even when it meant standing alone. 

It's also why once again, no matter what kind of business you're running, I think it's worth taking the time to watch how the airlines address big business challenges.

Find me another big commodity industry, with so many publicly traded players, in which they all have to face similar issues under intense scrutiny at the same time.

Assuming you'll have to make tough decisions from time to time as a business leader, I see three big takeaways.

  1. The first has to do with emotional context. Nearly every time I've seen Kirby talk about this issue, he places vaccines in the context of the toll Covid has taken on United employees. From his initial remarks in January through when he told The New York Times recently, he made the mandate decision about a half hour after learning of the death of a 57-year-old United pilot who had been diagnosed with the virus.
  2. While Kirby staked out a bold position, he waited until circumstances allowed him to move forward on it. Eight months went by from when Kirby first started talking about a mandate to the date that it actually happened at United. It was much more about laying the rhetorical groundwork ahead of time.
  3. Kirby used his decision as an opportunity to try to lead others in the industry. Remember in those comments back in January, he made clear he didn't think United could act on its own. And while none of us were in the room when it happened, in August when United instituted its mandate, Kirby was one of the nation's CEOs who then met with Biden to discuss the issue. 

A month after that, Biden issued the federal contractor requirement, and another month after that, many of Kirby's big competitors announced a similar decision.

I'm not trying to convince you one way or the other about whether companies should require vaccine mandates. But when we finally close the book on our long Covid experience together, and especially how industry responses changed over time, I think Kirby's moves here will merit a mention. 

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