I admit, I was surprised to see United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby quote Winston Churchill.
Not because the quote isn’t apt. It is, and then some.
Instead, it’s because when United Airlines announced last year that Kirby would be taking over for then-CEO Oscar Munoz, I read account after account describing Kirby as numbers-oriented and blunt-spoken.
So, I wondered how that kind of leadership style would translate during the pandemic — a time of great challenges and uncertainty that requires inspiration and rhetoric of a type most leaders have never had to summon before.
This week, United held an earnings call. The transcript afterward ran 11,000 words, and it marked the first time since the airline furloughed 13,000 workers at the start of the month that a group of analysts and reporters have been able to question United Airlines executives about the airline’s future.
Calling this a challenging time for airlines is an extreme understatement. United reported that its passenger revenue was down 84 percent. And when Kirby began his remarks, he had to start by thanking United employees for doing things like voluntarily leaving the airline, or taking fewer hours, to cut down on labor costs.
But past is past, and while Kirby said at one point that he thinks the airline industry won’t fully rebound until 2024, he also went back 78 years to find the words that strike the right tone for leaders in this exceptional year.
The key quote — as noted, it’s actually Kirby quoting Churchill — runs just eight words, although the context is a bit longer, and worth including:
[T]oday, what we’re expressing is not a shift from pessimism to optimism, as much as it is an expression of confidence in the future.
There’s a great quote that I love … from Winston Churchill that he said in 1942, over two years before the end of World War II after the African campaign and the Brits won in Africa that, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
And I think that is the moment we’re at now at United Airlines. … [W]e have done what it takes in the initial phases to have confidence. … [W]e’ll look back at this as the turning point. The light at the end of the tunnel is a long way away. But this is the turning point.
The key eight words: “It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
The circumstances are much different now of course than what the British people faced during World War II, but we share with those times a sense of a loss of control, and of real pain, and a longing for a different future.
This is a moment when leaders desperately want to be able to share good news — to be able to tell your stakeholders that things are under control, and that you have a plan to return to normalcy.
The problem? That might not be true.
I spoke recently with a neuroscientist who specializes in leadership development, Dr. David Rock, who emphasized that during the pandemic, almost the entire world is reacting neurologically to higher levels of threat perception than normal.
So, leaders should emphasize positive feedback and encouragement, strive to create certainty, and offer flexibility, empathy, and cooperative goals.
As Churchill understood during the great crisis of World War II, and as smart leaders understand now, there’s a way to reassure people that they’ve made progress, while still steeling them for the tough times that remain.
It’s about giving hope, without offering false hope; about offering praise without empty flattery.
This isn’t about whether United Airlines actually has followed the best path under Kirby’s leadership during the pandemic. I can’t tell you that one way or another.
People are hurting, and it will be a long while before we can look back and do a case study on it.
But in terms of tone? This is exactly the right one.
And whether you quote Churchill, or cite Kirby, or word it another way that seems more natural to your personal style of speaking, it’s the message great leaders will seek to share right now.