February 19, 2023


Success has many parents but failure is an orphan.

Anyone who’s spent time working a bureaucracy has seen how this plays out… where mistakes are somehow collective and impossible to anticipate, although there’s usually a fall guy.

A powerful example of this is last month's travel meltdowns in our national air travel system.

Over the holidays, Southwest Airlines experienced one of the biggest non-deadly air travel disasters ever seen. Southwest’s explanation focused on the ex-CEO and antiquated IT.

Southwest was once famous for great service and tight operations. Now they’re famous for canceling thousands of flights and stranding something like a million passengers in one of the most important travel periods of the year.

More recently, an FAA computer glitch shut down flights nation-wide. The FAA blamed “a contractor for unintentionally deleting computer files in an alert system... which tells pilots about restrictions and hazards along their routes.”

Fingers point in every direction, but accountability is nowhere to be seen. This isn’t the recipe for success.

It appears to me that Southwest’s leadership lost sight of something very important – it’s not enough to see the big picture and manage strategic direction. Great leaders must stay on top of operations too. If you don’t execute, long-term strategy won’t matter.

In Southwest’s heyday, I don’t think this meltdown would have happened. Their long-time CEO, Herb Kelleher, was renowned for his attention to detail. He regularly showed up on the front lines, talked to low and mid-level employees, and understood what was really going on. I’m sure that contributed to the airline’s great operational success.

Great leaders make the long-term health and success of their organizations their responsibility. That means staying on top of both strategy and operational details. Executives that lose sight of this are forgetting their fiduciary responsibilities.

Great leaders share credit for successes with their team. It’s great for unity, morale, and it encourages everybody to feel invested in group success. When things go wrong, great leaders step up and own it. Ultimately, leaders should be accountable for everything that happens within their organizations. A cover your a** culture is a great way to de-motivate employees and ruin a company.

Leaders in business, government, and beyond need to think clearly about their responsibilities, accountability, and taking ownership. It’s a management philosophy that everybody would do well to remember.

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