Where United and Others Can’t See the Forest for the Trees – by Leanne Hoagland Smith

In spite of the various articles, interviews and commentaries regarding the United Airlines (UAL) video and consequently PR nightmare, the old adage of “one can’t see the forest for the trees” is very much present.

The trees in UAL’s issue are the rules and compliances found within each ticket purchased. These statements clearly reveal that United along with most other airlines have the authority to remove passengers.

When one digs a little further, the removal of passengers in many instances is restricted to coach because first class, business class, reward members as well as those passengers with disabilities may be exempted.

Yet when one reads the commitment by UAL on its website, nowhere are passengers separated by class or any other distinction. This simple statement reads as follows:

“Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers.”

The positive experience is the forest of all UAL’s customers. Clearly United failed in this goal and failed miserably even though legally United acted within its authority.

“Being legally right may also be morally wrong.”

Organizations like United and many others including the Mom and Pop shops to small business with under 20 employees to the mid-size businesses with 20 to 150 employees wallow daily in misalignment. In UAL’s case the misalignment started between its corporate commitment goal and its actual policies and procedures.

The trees in UAL’s instance were the policies. These policies became the “DE facto” judge for guiding the behaviors of the employees including the CEO.  Then other so called experts outside of United started cutting down the compliance trees by directing their energies toward the non-compliant passenger to the point of investigating his history.

“People will engage in some really crazy behaviors to justify the trees.”

Misalignment often surfaces as a culture issue. One UAL pilot was quoted as United has a culture problem. Even though this appears to be true, the bigger issue is an executive leadership problem as executive leadership is ultimately responsible for the culture.

When I read United Airlines’ CEO’s first statement,  I thought of the book, Fail-Safe Leadership, where the authors Linda Martin and Dr. David Mutchler constructed a quick leadership audit that included “Cover your behind mentality.” The CEO’s later statements almost recognized how United failed its stated customer experience goal.

The essential lesson to be learned from UAL’s recent customer service disaster is to not lose sight of your commitment to your customers both external and internal. Invest the time, energy, money and emotions to move up and away from the trees so you can see the forest. To be able to actually see the forest may require this action as a colleague of mine, Manfred Gollent observed, “Get a coach.”


Leanne Hoagland-Smith is Trusted Authority for Forward Thinking sales culture. She works to challenge the status quo by closing the knowing doing leadership and strategy gaps that restrict sustainable growth for individuals and organizations.. Give her a call at 219.508.2859 Chicago USA time to end your repetitive symptoms and gain sustainable results. Leanne is also available for keynotes and onsite workshops. Follow her at her WebsiteBlogTwitter, and LinkedIn.


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