Tone Deaf Leadership

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Tone Deaf Leadership

April 12, 2017 -

Oscar Munoz and United Airlines are in the cross-hairs of a public outcry about customer treatment in the airline industry. Earlier this week, a video went viral showing the forcible removal of a passenger from a flight, replete with the man being dragged off the plan, glasses askew, as if he had committed an egregious crime. But his only crime was refusing to comply with the inane practice of “overbooking” that has become standard among airlines.

I would like to point out other things about this problem, but I’ll skip them for now and get to the real issue. People are so upset at this situation because it gets at the core of a common feeling that we’ve all had at one point or another when traveling: feeling like cattle rather than customers.

Mr. Munoz’s response to the situation didn’t help. The CEO sent an email to United employees that was quickly leaked. It’s worth quoting in its entirety:

Dear Team,

Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville.

While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees. 

As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help.

Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.

I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation. 


Munoz was immediately called tone-deaf. The email seems like it was fashioned by a lawyer rather than a leader. I want to try to explore why, almost universally, everyone called this a tone-deaf response.

At its core, being tone deaf reveals an inability to understand the reality of a deeply troubling situation. United’s problem wasn’t that they had simply made a little snafu, an error that could be attributable to a computer glitch or some other technical malfunction. No, United’s problem was that this situation revealed a gross violation of human decency. Mr. Munoz’s inability to see the problem for what it was further exacerbated an already terrible problem.

Leaders absolutely must be able to have better discernment than this when it comes to basic human issues. We all understand that sometimes gray areas make decisions tricky, or that there might be additional information about a situation, but at our core we want leaders who can recognize when something is deeply wrong. This is why there has been such an upsurge in desiring authentic leaders.

Chief Brown’s leadership during the Dallas shooting crisis last summer was the perfect example of the opposite of tone-deaf leadership. In his initial address to reporters as the situation was unfolding, he immediately called for people to join together to pray for the officers and the entire city. He knew the gravity of the situation and responded with his heart, choosing to communicate as a normal human would, instead of as a politically correct leader more concerned with the nuancing of his words.

The ultimate authentic leader is Jesus. He understands the reality of every deeply troubling situation. We can model our leadership after His, learning how to seek wisdom and discernment when we face our own difficult situations. Henry and Richard Blackaby, in Spiritual Leadership, contend that leading spiritually, from a leader’s relationship with God, actually enhances a leader’s ability to handle difficulties. I agree.

When a leader is daily walking with Jesus, submitting themselves to him, God begins to work in their lives to help them see and understand situations more clearly. It doesn’t always mean that there is some complex answer that is always provided, but that as you walk with Jesus, you begin to see other people as Jesus sees them. This reshaping of our minds is part of an overall development of wisdom and discernment that God works within us through his Spirit.

In apprenticeship to Jesus, we become better at learning to see things as they truly are. He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Part of learning to see the truth of matters is knowing when something has gone wrong, and that you need to respond with contrition rather than minimizing or covering up.

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