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The Heroic Last Stand (or not)

Southwest Airlines vs. US Airways and the Heroic Last Stand

In the spring of 2004, US Airways CEO David Siegel announced to his employees, “Southwest is out to kill us.” Shortly after issuing this war cry, he lost his job. Interestingly, several years earlier, when United Airlines launched a competing service in California, Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher issued a similar call-to-arms to his troops in a letter titled “Commencement of Hostilities.” Although the words were similar, the reaction was not.

US Airways employees responded with derision and suspicion; Southwest Airlines employees responded with esprit de corps and élan. Why the difference? Why can one leader issue a rallying cry and be met with “Hurrah!” and the other, with a Bronx cheer?

Credibility. As far as folks at US Airways were concerned, Siegel was bankrupt in the credibility department. They found him lacking in integrity and trustworthiness. Hence, they lost confidence in his ability to lead the airline. They worked because of personal pride and a desire to save their jobs--not out of a sense of loyalty to the boss. While Siegel made a dramatic call for a last stand and was ridiculed, Kelleher made a similar call and was lionized. His employees responded by reporting to work in camouflage uniforms and helmets.

History is replete with examples of the last stand, some resulting in glorious victory and others, in crushing defeat. In each case, the credibility of the leader in the eyes of the subordinates contributed greatly to the success or failure of the unit.

The battle at Rourkes Drift, during the Boer War in 1903, was a glorious victory for an improbable collection of British soldiers. Faced with over 4500 Zulu warriors at a remote outpost in South Africa, these 139 soldiers defended their base and survived. This single engagement resulted in the bestowment of more medals for valor than any other action in British history. The two remarkably ordinary leaders earned credibility, and later an audience with the Queen, in the crucible of combat by making good decisions and by fighting alongside their men.

General George Custer’s last stand was marked with individual glory, but its ultimate failure was caused by Custer’s lack of respect for his enemy and failure to plan accordingly. His actions showed him to be more interested in his reputation than in working together with the rest of his unit. Yet, his troops loved him and followed him with a passion. Their misperceived belief of his military credibility led them to their deaths. The ill-fated last stand at Little Big Horn might never have happened had Custer executed orders.

Credibility is vital, yet also elusive. How do leaders gain it or lose it? It is gained one positive personal interaction, one good decision at a time, over a period of time. It comes through competence and visibility. And, while it may take years to build one’s credibility, it can be lost immediately--with one indiscretion, one lie. It can also be lost or withheld due to arrogance or bravado.

Kelleher earned his credibility as he built an airline with an energized and motivated workforce. Siegel, on the other hand, had low credibility entering US Airways, and did little to build it. In the face of liquidation, he gained concessions from his employees, only to later ask for more concessions. Yet he offered little in the way of strategic vision to rally employees. Faced with the life or death of his airline, he issued a “do or die” call only to be met with resentment and disgust.

The importance of credibility is indisputable. Leaders cannot lead successfully if they have not established and maintained credibility over time. There are many ways to enhance credibility. Some of the best include being visible, truthful, competent, and respectful.

Wally Adamchik is President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting. Visit the website at www.beaFireStarter.com. He can be reached at 919-673-9499 or wally@beaFireStarter.com.

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