If you’re looking for a case study in the perils of unaccountable leadership, look no further than RyanAir.
You may or may not have seen the video that recently went viral because of its jaw-dropping scenes of a RyanAir passenger who launched a sickening racist rant and physically threatened his assigned seatmate, an elderly black woman. Whether you’ve seen the video or not really doesn’t matter, because, frankly, the lesson to be learned here is not that, when you fly enough flights and book enough tickets, ill-tempered idiots can occasionally be expected to go off on fellow passengers. We already knew that. That wasn’t what turned this into a crisis.
What turned this into a crisis was RyanAir’s refusal to make a decision … its refusal to take action .. and its refusal to engage with its customers and stakeholders.
Maybe this vile man should have been marched out the door before the plane took off and turned over to the airport police. That’s what a lot of people who saw the video thought, and it’s certainly what I thought after having seen it. Even if one were to assume that that would have been a difficult judgment call for the flight crew, though … even if one were to assume that simply finding alternative seating for the woman who found herself the target of this fool’s venom was the right thing to do … that still wouldn’t mean reseating the woman was the only thing to do.
Make no mistake: How you respond to an event like this reveals exactly what kind of person you are, exactly what kind of leader you are, and exactly what kind of organization you have built.
Your response as a leader in such moments demonstrates to the entire world whether you make decisions based on short-term interests (like turning around the plane quickly so it can make another flight) … or long-term values (like protecting your passengers, standing by both customers and employees when all hell breaks loose, and earning a great reputation). It became obvious to me as this video broke the Internet wide open that RyanAir management does not make its decisions based on such values. And so it’s not surprising that the people on the front line didn’t, either.
Look what happened. Suddenly, RyanAir found itself being asked tough questions. Should the onboard crew have handled the situation differently? Instead of addressing that important question, RyanAir simply chose not to deal with the situation. In so doing, they made one of the classic mistakes of unaccountable leadership. They thought that not dealing with the problem would make it go away.
It didn’t go away. The moral: Making no decision IS a decision. A bad one.
Consider. The flight in question took place on Friday, October 19. The video of this hateful exchange went up the day after that. Ryanair had no public comment on the incident until Sunday, at which point it posted a message on Twitter acknowledging that it was aware that the video existed … (glad to hear that!) … and that they had contacted the police. Okay …. and?
As of this writing, that is all that the RyanAir Twitter feed has had to say about this incident.
What a tragedy! What a missed opportunity!
A leader with a commitment to a value like “We stand by our passengers and employees when all hell breaks loose,” or with a commitment to securing the airline’s good reputation, would have jumped all over this event, right away. That leader would have made certain that the whole world knew that both the leader and the airline considered such abuse intolerable, would have rejected racism and discrimination in all its forms, and would have announced that a full internal review of the incident was underway.
But that’s not the kind of leadership RyanAir has.
As a result of that leadership vacuum, RyanAir – which not coincidentally has terrible marks for customer service – made a bad situation far worse. By issuing that bland, anonymous statement on Twitter, RyanAir’s leaders succeeded only in confirming the worst things that people around the world had started saying about their brand: That they didn’t listen. That they were focused only on getting the plane to take off on time. That they had not only permitted a passenger to be subjected to this horrible treatment, but by their inaction had actually endorsed it!
Here’s my assessment of what’s happening at RyanAir: Leadership is not living any values at all, so the people on the front line aren’t living values, either. RyanAir’s leadership does not make decisions based on positive values, so the example has not been set for everyone else to do the same. Their people on the front liner do not know how to make a decision in a difficult situation .. and in that environment they feel unprepared to handle daily challenges. They’ve got no compass!
Because there is zero commitment to positive values at the top, people elsewhere in the organization simply aren’t willing to do what’s right in an uncomfortable situation. Instead, they’re doing nothing, and going nowhere. That’s a bad state of affairs, as the social media meltdown now engulfing the company proves.
I’ll close this with a prediction: This kind of problem will keep happening at RyanAir … until the company’s leadership defines, models, teaches, and starts defending positive values that support its mission. I hope they do that soon.