With Just 2 Sentences, the CEO of United Airlines Just Taught a Bold Lesson in Leadership

One thing about United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby: He has no fear of being first.

Over the past couple of weeks, Kirby has stepped out in front of his competitors at other airlines — and frankly, in front of most of corporate America — by saying he wants United Airlines to make the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory for all United employees. 

This story is a great example of why I think business leaders in all industries should follow the airlines. It’s the key point of my ebook, Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines, which you can download here for free.

So let’s review what Kirby has said about the future at United Airlines to prompt this discussion. It’s one of the big decisions that most business leaders will have to make over the next few months, regardless of industry. 

The right thing to do

It all began Jan. 21, in a town hall with United Airlines employees, according to a transcript obtained by the media. These two sentences were key.

“The worst thing that I believe I will ever do in my career is the letters that I have written to the surviving family members of coworkers that we have lost to the coronavirus. And so, for 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 like how he worded that, setting up the stakes and acknowledging objections before declaring his goal. 

Kirby doubled down on the idea last week, straddling the line between advocating and predicting that much as people have (mostly) accepted wearing masks on airplanes, they will also accept mandatory vaccines for employees.

“It will just become what is expected and what most companies do. Once the ball gets rolling, it’s going to roll all the way to the bottom,” Kirby said during a virtual talk at the Economic Club of Chicago.

Out alone in front

To be clear, this isn’t United Airlines policy, yet. (A company spokesperson said United is “strongly considering” mandatory vaccines.) Frankly, there aren’t enough doses yet to make this policy possible.

But even advocating for mandatory vaccines seems to put United ahead of its competitors on the issue. 

I checked in with American, Delta and Southwest Airlines; each confirmed that they have no current plans to make the vaccine mandatory for employees.

They are certainly encouraging employees to get vaccinated, and in some cases will be offering the vaccine for free, but that’s different from what Kirby is advocating — which would include trying to find jobs that don’t require interacting with people for employees who refuse to get the vaccine.

Of course, Kirby said, there are only a limited number of jobs at an airline that don’t involve interacting with people. And, he made clear that in the long term, mandatory vaccinations at United Airlines could only work if other companies require them, too.

“I’m realistic enough, while I think it’s the right thing to do, to know United Airlines alone can’t do it and have it stick. There don’t have to be a ton of others, but there have to be others,” he said last week.

Realism vs optimism

Most of the time when I write about the airlines and their leaders, I come neither to bury them nor to praise them. I don’t have a stake in their outcomes (literally; I don’t invest in the travel industry, since I write about it so much). 

But, I do wish good things for the airlines, and I am eager to voice support when I see something that looks like good leadership. That’s my take on what Kirby has been doing.

I suspect that part of Kirby’s stepping forward on this issue — truly, if there’s another big company CEO who has been as outspoken on the issue, I’ve missed him or her — is how he’s characterized the future of the airline industry, post-pandemic.

To summarize, I’ve noted how he’s described himself as being “realistic,” even while competitors — say, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian — have stood out for their cautious optimism.

The two things everyone in the industry is banking on are that (a) there can be no widespread recovery until there’s widespread vaccine distribution, and (b) once there is widespread distribution, there will be a lot of pent-up demand for travel.

Among the problems, however? A significant number of Americans say they simply won’t get the vaccine.

A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggested as many as 51 percent of American adults say they either won’t get it, or want to “wait and see” before signing up.

A big second wave?

So, do the math. If widespread vaccinations are the pathway to recovery, and yet a significant number of people hesitate to get vaccinated, one way to stimulate demand might be if companies made vaccinations mandatory for their employees.

Few companies want to be the first to announce that’s their policy, but then few have as much riding on quick vaccinations as the travel industry and companies like United Airlines, in particular.

Kirby hinted at this part of the equation when he said he expects that “a big second wave” of companies will also require employees to get vaccines, once they’ve seen a few leaders step forward.

Leaders like–oh, I don’t know. Maybe United Airlines?

See what I mean? This isn’t just a case study you can examine to help determine whether you should require your employees to get vaccinated. If Kirby’s strategy here works, it could become a case study in how to lead an entire industry in a particular direction.

The keys? Show bold leadership, make the case, announce your intentions–and don’t be afraid to get out in front of everyone else.

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

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