The images and reports of paying passenger David Dao’s bloodied face after he was dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight to permit crew members to fly still have millions of customers shaking their heads in disbelief. The airline, its CEO, Oscar Munoz, and the personnel involved with the ghastly incident have been criticized by traditional and social media, and by concerned organizations, like consumer rights groups.
But let’s for a moment delay the gratification that comes with beating up the bully, in this case, an airline that claims it loves to fly the “friendly skies,” and its leadership. Bashing United and its leadership may quench our immediate blood lust, but won’t do anything to cure the malaise responsible for springing this behavior.
Let’s instead ask a more fundamental question, “What emboldened the front-line employees of United Airlines and the security personnel at Chicago’s O’Hare airport to resort to this behavior in the first place?” Unless we dig deeper and address these more basic issues, consumer well-being will always be vulnerable, and customers like David Dao will find themselves victimized by companies whom they can’t match in power or resources.
Meaning no disrespect to Mr. Dao’s suffering, we should label the incident for what it symbolized: a customer sacrifice. Just as chess players sacrifice pawns to meet the needs of other pieces, companies routinely sacrifice customers’ interests and well-being to feed their own needs of well-being and prosperity. And it’s not just airlines. In just the past 12 months, headlines of foul business behavior are teeming with examples of drug companies, banks, oil companies, hotels, cruise liners, food companies, automakers, and auto-part manufacturers that willfully sacrificed their customers’ well-being so they wouldn’t have to sacrifice their own. So back to the fundamental question raised above, “What emboldens companies to sacrifice customer well-being?” Several reasons.
First, despite all the posturing and loud advertising in CEO speeches, press releases, annual reports, and on corporate websites or plaques adorning the walls of corporate lobbies that claim “the customer is boss,” the dominant reality still is that “the company matters more than the customer.”
Second, when companies think and operate with a “company-first” mindset, customer well-being takes a hit. Customers cease to be human beings; they are relegated to the status of “wallets,” “visitors,” “leads,” and “eyeballs.” Mere sources of revenue, customers are courted when the company needs their business and discarded when it doesn’t.
Third, front-line employees and other executives sacrifice customer well-being because they have observed their leaders do the same: sacrifice the interests of stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers, environment, regulation) to benefit themselves and/or their company. Making full allowance for rogue employees, it’s essentially “monkey see, monkey do.”
Lastly, some companies sacrifice and take advantage of vulnerable customers because they can. And they know that even if they get caught, they can pay their way out of trouble.
One theme unites all four reasons cited above: the absence of soulful leadership. Consumer well-being will always take a back seat and be sacrificed unless leaders embrace and adopt the key ideas and practices of purposeful leadership. It is more likely to protect and assure customer well-being because:
• Soulful leaders don’t assume they or their companies are the center of the universe. They know they are part of a larger value-creation ecosystem, and therefore consciously and willingly care for the well-being of other members in that system.
• Soulful leaders are human-centric. They don’t need to be told that customers are not mere wallets. They treat their customers as human beings and are more intent on keeping and growing their customers’ business, rather than winning one-off encounters.
• Soulful leaders don’t habitually sacrifice the well-being of customers or other stakeholders because they are in the business of increasing well-being and prosperity for the greatest many, not just those associated with power and privilege.
The long-term answer to assuring and protecting customer well-being is not more judicial oversight or new legislation; we already have too many rules. The answer lies within the organization, within the leaders themselves.
Leaders need to understand that, if they sacrifice the well-being of others to serve their own needs of well-being and prosperity, they are condoning similar behaviors right down the organization. From that covert sanction to David Dao-like incidents is just a small step. The truly sustainable deterrent to preventing such incidents from occurring in the future is for leaders to demonstrate through their own behaviors that consumers are an asset, that they are human beings, and sacrificing consumer well-being is out-of-bounds.
Embracing the ideas and practices of soulful leadership will go a long way in helping leaders achieve these goals.