top of page

Exemplary Leadership: An Intro to Leading With Heart

Last night marked the conclusion of yet another semester of post-grad studies. I plan on talking more in-depth about why another time, but I am thankful that, at the onset of COVID-19, I decided to pursue my M.B.A. The leadership development portion of my curriculum has been my favorite part; each class is more interesting than the last and readily applicable to our field. Anyways, the class that concluded last night was properly titled Leadership and Change - the name reasonably indicative of its purpose.

The harsh reality is poor leadership runs rampant in our industry, and it just does not need to be that way. Aviation is in desperate need of leaders who can facilitate change, whether it be on a micro or macro scale. It does not matter if one is currently in a leadership position or strives to be; anyone can learn leadership development. So, let's get into it.

Leaders Think, Managers Do

A position as manager, especially in aviation, will carry a differing range of responsibilities. For example, a manager at one level may facilitate team oversight. In contrast, another manager similarly situated on an organizational chart may manage a specific abstract, say the operational output of the airport, which does not require a people management component.

Both are responsible for progressively developing as leaders to maximize personal contribution. Ineffective management only holds back an organization and ultimately drives talent away. The saying goes, “Leaders think, managers do.” So what is the difference? I find the following table sums up risks perfectly:



Leaders have missions to accomplish.

​Managers are goal-oriented.

Leaders challenge the status quo.

Managers maintain or try to achieve the status quo.

Leaders are unique.

Managers mimic their competitors.

Leaders take risks.

Managers avoid taking risks.

Leaders are willing to learn and grow personally.

Managers perfect existing, proven skills.

Leaders build relationships.

Managers focus on goals and objectives.

Leaders coach people to become better versions of themselves.

Managers direct people to achieve the company goal.

Results of leadership are intangible.

Results of management are measurable.

Leadership is qualitative.

Management is quantitative.

Leaders have fans.

Managers have employees.

There is no litmus test to determine whether someone falls under the category of leader versus manager, but being able to infer the difference for ourselves is not all that difficult a task. I would be willing to bet that, more likely than not, you are far more accustomed to working with managers than leaders. Regardless of your industry, over time, antiquated management practices will go the way of the dodo (I always wanted to say that).

What can we do to best position ourselves as one of the leaders of the future? So much reading material exists, and the coursework for my recent class was centered around the book The Leadership Challenge by Barry Posner with help from James Kouzes. Within the book are the “Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership,” which can be utilized as a framework for acting as a developing leader whether or not one holds a position of authority. Although written primarily from a “leader-as-hero” perspective, we can make distinctions in applying to the broader principle of shared leadership.

The Five Principles of Exemplary Leadership

Model the Way. First and foremost, a leader needs to set an example. Start by defining a shared vision people can resonate with that comprises organizational goals and further explain how individuals are expected to exemplify them. I will primarily speak to this exemplary practice from the perspective of airports.

I have always said airport management is a customer service function - we do our job so others can do theirs. Each airport will differ semantically in various ways, but the purpose remains the same; to provide the most efficient and customer-friendly experience for passengers and stakeholders alike. The airport is a resource to the community that brings millions of dollars and hundreds (sometimes thousands) of jobs to the local economy. This, a vision in and of itself, is often neglected in favor of authoritarian ideals where passengers or stakeholders fall to the whims of hierarchy desires. In this circumstance, the concerns or constraints of others just trying to do their jobs can be minimized.

Regardless of where it falls under the local government's jurisdiction, an airport is defined as a “large-scale business enterprise.” In other words, an airport is still a business, not a military branch, and thus should never be managed. Airports, because the operator usually bridges the gap between the airport community and the local government, live in a political environment and are more subject to a power complex than airlines. For the most part, while politics definitely factor in, airlines do not stray from their ultimate role as a business that competes with other airlines - doing so would jeopardize their existence.

Airports often lack or neglect the competition component, so there is no real need to act in the organization's best interest. An airline begins by identifying its customers and building a customer service model based on how they are expected to be treated, from curb to gate and back again, giving leaders a vision of how they are expected to lead and act accordingly. Yes, this applies to airlines such as Spirit or Ryanair, whose customers are predominantly no-frills - “get me from Point A to Point B as cheap as possible.” But, if a customer cannot be self-sufficient at the airport and requires assistance, that service must be purchased. While the moral conflict this revenue stream creates is apparent, in this instance, the employee serving the customer is expected to act by the company's vision, bringing us to our next exemplary practice.

Inspire a Shared Vision. A leader must envision an uplifting and meaningful future they are passionate about. It is crucial that the vision appeal to the interests, hopes, and dreams of employees to enlist their support. Nothing good comes from being forced; buy-in for this shared vision must be organic and consistent. Organizations with a notoriously optimistic workforce usually have no problem gathering and retaining talent, as people who apply for work genuinely want to be a part of a cause greater than themselves. For this reason, large companies like Google and Pixar have become case studies for building and retaining talent. Still, thankfully another organization falls into this category that is in our industry (if you know me, you know what is coming next and just rolled your eyes) - Southwest Airlines.

In the volatile commercial aviation industry, Southwest is less known for its unprecedented financial success and more for the actual Southwest experience - passenger or employee alike. To help understand, here is the company’s vision statement:

“To be the world’s most loved, most efficient and most profitable airline.”

Even with their recent shortcomings in service, no one can rightfully argue that Southwest leadership does not act by their shared vision. Founder and CEO Herb Kelleher fought for what he believed in and was so passionate about his vision in the early days with the airline's fate in question that employees fought by his side and continued to for decades. In 1972, when Southwest had to sell their fourth Boeing 737 to make payroll, employees rose to maintain a four-aircraft schedule, only operating three, requiring 10-minute turn times between flights. Pilots would park the aircraft and help the ground crew throw bags to make the ten-minute turn times! Kelleher made sure that leaders were there to prioritize employees first. Herb was known for occasionally responding to harsh customer complaints and defending his employees (when appropriate).

Further, the hiring process prioritizes those that fit the model of Southwest’s vision over accumulated talent on resumes. Often, well-qualified individuals were passed over in favor of the more intangible aspects of other candidates - those who exemplify “Southwest Spirit.” To quote from the well-known business book Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, “We will train you on whatever it is you have to do, but one thing Southwest cannot change in people is inherent attitudes.”

The book then tells the story of eight applicant pilots being kidded over how they were dressed - black socks, dark suits, and dress shoes on interview day. They were told to “loosen up” and change into Southwest’s standard-issue Bermuda shorts, which they would then wear the rest of the day throughout the interview process. Six of the eight applicants obliged, and by day's end, these were the six that were hired. Sure, the other two pilots may have been talented enough, but they did not fit the model for Southwest’s vision.

Herb Kelleher during the "Malice in Dallas"

Photo: Southwest.

Challenge the Process. The leader needs to be the change agent. Think about how dynamic our industry is - a lack of flexibility has taken down some of the giant conglomerates known to man. At one point, Pan Am was at the top of the world, their headquarters in Downtown Manhattan a famous icon of their stature. Of course, many factors play into the collapse of an airline as large as Pan Am. Still, a significant turning point in their downfall was an inability to hedge their exclusively international route map with domestic travel.

After deregulation in 1978, Pan Am responded with a lack of concern and focused on their international markets even though they were now vulnerable to competition. But as U.S. carriers became more robust, they became large enough to chip away at global market share. When Pan Am realized their long-monopolized routes were seriously jeopardized, CEO William Seawell tried to react by acquiring domestic carrier National Airlines.

Growing a domestic market organically, something they could have feasibly done years earlier at the onset of deregulation, would now take too much time and further compromise their competitive position. They let it fester to the point that a quick acquisition was needed, but this decision was disastrous in the long run and later became a significant reason why the airline was liquidated in 1991.

Pan Am is far from the only carrier ever to fall victim to the “good enough” trap. Innovators who act as leaders always seek ways to challenge the status quo. “Okay” may be good enough for some, but certainly not for an innovator. Further, the leader should seek out challenges that will grow and improve both themselves as individuals and other members of the team. Inherent in this exemplary practice are the risks involved in new challenges, which sometimes will lead to failure (depending on the challenge, maybe loss is more likely than not). It is vital for the leader moving forward to see failures as learning opportunities, and the attitude of others will similarly follow. Your actions should inspire innovation in those around you.

Photo: The Leadership Challenge.

Enable Others to Act. “Teamwork makes the dream work.” So many managers flock to ensure they are involved in all decisions, creating a culture of micromanagement that lacks trust and drives talent out the door. Part of our responsibility as leaders is to ensure that we are molding the next generation, and the only way to do this is to launch collaborative initiatives to empower others to achieve the shared vision.

Unfortunately, hierarchical organizations often keep talented personnel in the shadows so long as they seek employment elsewhere. A manager who purposefully limits input from individuals due to their place on an organizational chart limits their growth potential for no good reason. Inversely, including people in processes above their current responsibilities will make employees feel appreciated, crucial to the big picture and inspire the shared vision.

The objective focus of a leader should include two principal components (in no particular order); building trust and building relationships. Trust is something earned over time. Be transparent - do not be afraid to disclose information to others, include them in analysis, and build a collaborative environment. With micromanagement often comes siloed organizations that compete against each other for prominence and resources.

Due to the competitive nature of silos, little interoperability complicates the organization’s pursuit of the shared vision. Take, for example, Microsoft, which had been often considered the antithesis of Google's work culture for years, known for a very competitive workforce culture built around the foundational practice of “stack ranking.” To better explain this, I pull an article excerpt on the topic from Kurt Eichenwald of Vanity Fair, published in 2012:

“Every current and former Microsoft employee I interview - every one - cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold number of employees…‘If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, two people were going to get a great review, seven were going to get mediocre reviews, and one was going to get a terrible review.’ says a former software developer. ‘It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.’”

A year later, Microsoft terminated stack rankings and all rankings. The culture of working at Microsoft has improved, but the damage has been done, as Microsoft fell far behind the rest of the industry (namely Apple, another great place to work) regarding market share. If your organization supports a siloed organizational structure, the odds are that employees will compete more amongst themselves than with the competition. Leaders should seek to destroy silos, rebuilding trust and critical relationships, further increasing organizational productivity. This feat will not happen within a culture of micromanagement. Plenty of material on this topic is available (I plan on talking about the concept of decentralized command in the future. But, if you are familiar with Jocko Willink's material the way I am, you likely already surmised how much of his work is applicable).

Encourage the Heart. A leader inspires a community spirit where employees pick each other up and recognize each others’ value. This is where the concept of positive reinforcement comes into play - we should recognize employees and their accomplishments along the path to our shared vision. The method of positive reinforcement needs to be genuine, and your day-to-day actions must reflect your support of these individuals and their actions. For example, perhaps after making it through an event where there is a collectively perceived failure on the part of management unless the manager is taking responsibility for their culpability, any message will be viewed critically and lacking authenticity, falling on deaf ears and usually having the opposite of the intended effect (“yeah, no thanks to you!”). If a manager intends to “reply all” to an email saying an excellent job, it has to be heartfelt and well thought out.

I would like to return the page to good ole Herb Kelleher and friends; celebration is famously a cornerstone of Southwest's work culture. They even have a corporate committee dedicated to celebrating employees and their accomplishments! This does not just mean that a cake is split every time a flight successfully departs on time. The company has the following corporate guidelines in place to ensure the celebrations remain special:

  1. The celebration must be authentic.

  2. The celebration must raise people’s dignity or self-esteem.

  3. The celebration must be done right.

  4. The celebration must appeal to all the senses.

  5. The celebration must be seen as an investment.

  6. The celebration must be cost-effective.

Celebrating small or large victories is a great way to reinforce employees' efforts while building trust positively. These goals must be attainable and clear to everyone in the organization, and no one should feel insignificant in its pursuit. To box out departments in meetings or processes for hierarchical purposes damages both the individuals involved and the organization's output, not to mention unnecessary. According to the book, the latter part of this exemplary practice bolsters the “leader-as-hero” perspective that I personally do not connect with. Leadership is a collective responsibility that only starts with the leader, so while I do think it is essential to personally say “thank you” and be a part of the celebration, I do not feel my logic takes the same meaning the book would indicate, almost as if I was the President of the United States.

At one point or another, whether realizing it or not, all of us have been part of a team. Personally speaking, I have been on a team where it felt like we were an invincible family. Our coaches challenged us for four years to be our best selves on and off the field. However, I have also been on teams that lacked cohesion and ultimately fell short of the goal. In fact, the example I am thinking of is that the star player fought with a teammate’s family during a championship game.

I bet you can guess which of these teams overachieved and which underachieved. Reflect on examples within your lives - it does not have to be sports. It can be a club you were a part of or maybe even a working group in class. Can you draw similar examples? What were some things between the successful experiences and the negative ones every day? What did the leaders have in common versus what did they do differently?


My conclusion will be short, as this is only the beginning. I have to leave something to talk about next time! These five practices are in no particular order - each is just as important as the other. One of our assignments was prioritizing them one through five to prove this point. Each student had a different answer, but no one was wrong. Also, not sure if you noticed, but the last exemplary practice inspired my latest pep phrase - “Lead With Heart.” Often, there is not enough heart in our work - whether in job performance, our relationships with coworkers, or our natural motivation. What could use a little more heart in our professional lives now? What can you do to put a little heart back on the table?

Stay tuned for more “heartful” content!

bottom of page