The value of a strong corporate reputation – for internal and external stakeholders.
Before I point out a leadership trait I find glaringly missing, context for this story is important. I need to turn back the clock to an unfortunate, gut-wrenching event that demonstrates the human side of leadership.
It was January 4, 2011. Two-year-old Caden Rodgers lay in a coma inside a Denver hospital, the victim of child abuse at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend, later charged with first-degree murder.
Doctors determined that Caden would not survive and the family agreed to pull the plug on life support and donate his organs as a gift to over 25 people whose lives would be saved.
One problem: His grandfather Mark Dickinson was on a business trip in Los Angeles when he received the grim news the day before Caden would come off life support.
Dickinson’s employer quickly made flight arrangements out of LAX and he was able to arrive two hours early for his Southwest Airlines flight. Plenty of time, you’d think.
That day, however, TSA lines were so long that Dickinson feared he wouldn’t make his flight. On the verge of tears, he pleaded with security personnel to let him cut to the front of the line but was told he had to wait like everyone else.
In the meantime, Dickinson’s wife, understanding the situation was going from bad to worse, had called Southwest and explained the situation to a ticketing agent.
After he got through security, Dickinson grabbed his shoes and frantically sprinted through the terminal like a crazy person — in his socks.
When Dickinson arrived at his gate in a pool of sweat, it was 12:02 p.m. His flight was scheduled to depart at 11:50 a.m. He was 12 minutes late.
What happened next is pure human compassion disguised as unheard-of customer service.Unless, of course, you’re Southwest Airlines.
Dickinson asked in a panic if the plane had left. And under normal circumstances, it should have. But the Southwest gate agent fixed his eyes securely on Dickinson and asked, “Are you Mark Dickinson?” And when he said yes, he said, “We’re holding the plane for you.”
The Southwest pilot was standing by the jetway waiting for him like a patient father for a teenage daughter on a late date night. Whe he saw Dickinson, he told him he was sorry for the loss of his grandson.
Then, the best line of all from the pilot: “They can’t go anywhere without me and I wasn’t going anywhere without you. Now relax. We’ll get you there. And again, I’m so sorry.”
A few hours later, little Caden was surrounded by his grandfather, his mother, and other family members when his life support was pulled. Because of one pilot’s unrelenting act of kindness and compassion, Dickinson got to say goodbye to his murdered grandson. He said, “I am so grateful for the airline for doing what they did.”
The priceless leadership lesson
Let’s get some added business perspective that makes this story even more amazing. Southwest is notoriously known for turning its planes around like nobody else — typically 15 to 20 minutes faster than its competitors. This is a key business metric for which airlines judge themselves because it can literally cost them millions annually if they don’t get off the ground on time.
So when Dickinson was late 12 minutes, it was an eternity; most pilots would’ve bailed on him knowing the financial cost to the company.
But at Southwest, compassion and kindness run through the employees’ veins; these business virtues–yes, “business”–are permanently etched in Southwest’s corporate DNA.
A Southwest spokesperson bombarded by the media who questioned the pilot’s mental faculties in waiting for Dickinson, responded: “We fully support what our captain did. Customer service is important and we’re not at all surprised an action like this would take place.”
The only reason this worked is because the Southwest culture and its leadership empowerthe employees and give them the freedom and ownership to do the right thing–on the spot. It’s an expectation that every employee should exercise their brains and emotional intelligence over rules and policy when in a crunch.
The business case for compassion in the workplace
That Southwest pilot knew beyond any hint of a doubt that the values of the company backed his decision to serve a customer in need above any financial loss suffered for the day. Because in the end, Southwest gained a ton of new customers from the positive media exposure it got, and profited even more as a result.
Science also agrees with the business advantage that comes from compassionate leadership styles. Organizational psychologist Kim Cameron cites compelling research about the effects of compassion in the workplace. He says that people who feel compassion “demonstrate higher levels of helping behavior, moral reasoning, connectedness, and stronger interpersonal relationships, as well as less depression, reduced moodiness, and less mental illness.” These are the very things that pave the way to strong and high-performing organizational cultures.
For skeptical bottom-liners, another study, conducted by David Bright, Kim Cameron, and Arran Caza and documented in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, found that organizations characterized by higher levels of compassion (and other virtuous behaviors like forgiveness) increased performance, innovation, customer retention, profitability, and quality. They also had considerably less employee turnover.
Lastly, to dispel any notion that leadership compassion is perceived at all as weak, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, perhaps the most outspoken of any high-profile leader on the effects of “compassionate management,” tweeted this last year.
Big misconception about managing compassionately is that it’s a “soft” skill. Most compassionate people I know are typically the strongest.
— Jeff Weiner (@jeffweiner) October 6, 2017
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The Montgomery Strategies Group, LLC (TMSG) is an elite consulting firm with decades of expertise in corporate reputation positioning and brand awareness, crisis and litigation communications, public affairs and regulatory advocacy, capital markets and investor relations, and government affairs. Based in Washington, D.C., TMSG has teams and partners in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, Nashville, and London. Learn more: www.tmsgr.com.