With 3 Short Words, the CEO of Delta Air Lines Just Taught a Leadership Masterclass

Delta Air Lines held its latest earnings call last week. The transcript ran 14,000 words, but three words in particular leapt out: optimism, hope, and confidence

Delta CEO Ed Bastian and his leadership kept repeating them, and I think that probably tells you something about the leadership message they came into the call intending to impart.

This kind of takeaway is typical of the business lessons that led to my free ebook, Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines. It’s also why I advise leaders of businesses of all sizes and in all industries to pay attention to what Delta and the other big airlines do.

This has been perhaps the most challenging time in the history of U.S. aviation. 

Bastian himself called it “the toughest year in Delta’s history,” at the start of the earnings call, as he revealed that Delta lost $2.1 billion in the final quarter of 2020, and $9 billion for the entire year.

And while Delta avoided the massive furloughs that some of its competitors had to endure, most outside observers are nowhere near as optimistic as Bastian professed to be about the medium-term future of the industry.

Heck, I was struck just a few months ago when Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines, quoted Winston Churchill in the middle of World War II, opining that the appropriate amount of optimism to summon was simply to say that we had reached, “the end of the beginning.” 

As Ted Reed pointed out this week in reporting on Delta’s call for the airline site The Points Guy, even Bill Gates has predicted that roughly half of all business travel will never return, even in the post-pandemic world.

So, you tell me. If you were leading a company, and a team, facing the kinds of challenges Bastian and Delta Air Lines and the entire airline industry are facing, what would be your strategy?

I think it might be something along the lines of honest optimism, meaning that you’d want to paint as optimistic a picture as you can, without running a serious risk that your words will come back to bite you.

That’s why among those 14,000 words, the ones about hope, confidence and yes, optimism, stood out.

  • Here’s Bastian discussing survey results suggesting how much business travel will ultimately return: “I felt optimistic when I saw those results … I think business travel has got a very, very strong opportunity [to] return over the next two years, and we’re going to be well positioned.”
  • On the immediate short-term outlook: “[A]lthough we still have the tough winter ahead of us, we’re encouraged by the progress that’s been made on the vaccine front, and are confident that Delta is positioned to successfully lead our industry into recovery…”
  • On Delta’s profit-sharing program, which has been robust in the past: “[I]t’s just only a couple weeks into the year, but I’m hopeful that we’ll be paying it.”
  • On the overall closing message, literally the last line of his remarks: “[W]e’re ready to see this strategy through, which gives me optimism, confidence in our ability to thrive and emerge as the industry leader.”

As much as I root for the recovery of the U.S. airline industry, and as much as I wish only good things for the men and women who work in it, I have no personal stake in Delta Air Lines.

I mean that literally: I don’t invest in the travel sector, since I write about it so often. I also recognize that as the CEO on an earnings call, it would be pretty striking if Bastian didn’t portray an optimistic outlook for Delta.

Still, his overall message was counter to the conventional wisdom. It’s not just me saying it, and I have to think that’s deliberate, sending a message not only to investors and outside stakeholders, but to the roughly 90,000 Delta Air Lines employees.

It’s a fine line to walk as a business leader: maintaining trust and confidence and reassuring stakeholders, while also acting as the cheerleader-in-chief.

But I’ve come to realize two things after covering companies like Delta for so long.  

First, “leadership at scale equals culture,” and second, any leader’s most powerful tools are his or her words. 

All else being equal, if you want to lead your business effectively, “optimism,” “hope,” and “confidence” should be probably be right up front and accessible in your linguistic toolkit.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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