Servant Leadership Flies High from the Cockpit – United 757

PROLOGUE: I wrote this over 9 years ago. In June, I found out that Captain Denny Flanagan, of United Airlines (UAL) retired after 30 years with UAL and 20 years Navy before that. The CEO of United, Oscar Munoz, came to the airport to greet Captain Denny on his final flight.

What I wrote then is absolutely true today:

When was the last time you boarded an airplane and the pilot was handing out Aircraft Trading Cards with the statistics of the plane on which you’re about to fly?

Think about it. Makes sense. How many of us would buy a car without reading the manufacturer’s label on the window? So why shouldn’t we know about the “product” we are buying? That must have been what Captain Denny Flanagan figured when he stood at the jetway of the 757 that was to take me home to Orange County.

But there was more to the practice. Captain Flanagan brought this idea to United just after September 11th when they were losing customers and furloughing pilots. His thought was that if the pilots were to become more proactive and more visible, customers’ confidence level might increase and fill the airplanes. If the airplanes were filled, furloughed pilots would get their jobs back. It worked.

Lesson One: Servant Leaders think of employees and customers at the same time.

But Captain Flanagan didn’t stop there. Nope. During the flight, the attendant came back and handed out more business cards. This time, it was Captain Flanagan’s personal business card with a personal note handwritten on the back.

Eileen, you are a valued customer and your business is greatly appreciated. Please let me know how we can exceed your expectations. Capt. Denny.

Lesson Two: Servant Leaders actively model HOW to reach the customer.

Now, if I had been the ONLY passenger around me to get a card, I’d think this was a pick-up line. On the contrary, everyone received a personal note! Since I am in the leadership business, I figured I needed to meet this man and tell him how amazing it was to find a gesture like that.

Captain Flanagan appeared surprised that a passenger would wait to say thank you. He told me that he liked letting customers know that they mattered and he’d do his part, with whatever was in his sphere of influence, to give us a good experience. He made an impersonal flight into a flight of relationship building. I gave him my business card and said thanks.

That was two or three weeks ago. Today, I received another note from Captain Flanagan. It seems my comments on servant leadership were things he’d been practicing and he just wanted me to know more. (Little did he know that I write about leadership examples.)

Lesson Three: Servant leaders aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

I try and lead by example. This helps motivate the crew to do a better job. When they see me stow bags, assist moms with strollers and answer customer questions as if it was the first time I heard it they are brought back to their new hire days.

I tell my crew that in a year’s time there are many exterior forces in our lives that we have no control of but on a daily basis we can make a difference. It was a pleasure having you on my flight. You may forget my name in a few months but my goal is that you don't forget the feeling. Capt. Denny Flanagan

I know there are hard-bitten travelers who will mutter about mechanical delays, lost luggage, and surly clerks. I got them all just last week. That’s not the point.

Captain Flanagan can’t change the system. But he can—within the leadership boundaries of his 757—decide to model service, graciousness, and patience with the traveling public as well as his crew. The flight’s purser told me that Captain Flanagan treats his crew with the same respect he grants to his passengers.

Imagine what would happen if everyone just worried about the atmosphere and experience they are creating in that one small circle of influence instead of carping on the failure of senior managers, the work hours, the politics, the policies and the practices. An organization could fly on the wings of a lot of those “circles” coming together.

A McDargh says to a Flanagan, “Keep up the great work.” And that’s not blarney.

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