This Is What Accountable Leadership Looks Like

You may have seen the video that went viral about a luggage handler recklessly throwing passenger bags around at Manchester Airport in England. If you didn’t, here’s a look. The flight’s passengers (and plenty of others) were furious at the sight of the bags being tossed right through the baggage cart, and rightly so.

In a world where there are many, many accounts of customer sharing (valid) complaints about their flying experiences, I was reluctant to write another blog post about another such story … unless it focused on something positive. Fortunately, this one does. It demonstrates exactly what accountable leadership looks like in action, although many people did not notice that part of the story as the video made the “trending” lists on various social media platforms.

There are three important things about this story that might not have registered at first with the millions of people who viewed the video. This first is that the CEO of Manchester Airport, Andrew Cowan, quickly made good on two core accountable leadership commitments that he obviously takes very seriously: his commitment to provide customers (in his case, the passengers who use the airport’s facilities) with great service, and his commitment to ensure that employees work for a company with a world-class reputation. Great leaders, I have noticed, make these commitments and follow through on them. The statement Cowan issued following the video’s release shows that he is accountable to both his customers and his employees in both areas. It read in part:

“Manchester Airport will not tolerate the kind of behaviour shown yesterday by the employees of the ground handling company Swissport. We are clear that it is completely unacceptable for our customers’ belongings to be treated in this way. We would like to reassure passengers that those involved will not be allowed to work on our site again. We have sought urgent assurances from Swissport and Ryanair that a full investigation will be carried out and swift and robust action taken.”

The second thing we should notice here is that the employees manning that big baggage cart did not work for Manchester Airport. Repeat: They were not Cowan’s employees. They worked for the ground handling company. They did not report to Cowan and Cowan was not technically responsible for their performance on the job. But he took action and demonstrated accountability to his airport’s customers and his company’s employees anyway. A lesser leader would have led with a statement that said, in so many words, “Not my fault.” Cowan didn’t do that, and he deserves kudos for stepping up and clearly elucidating the standards he and his airport believe in.

Finally, notice that the words “we” and “our” show up five times in this brief statement. The word “I” does not show up at all. This confirms that Cowan is sharing, not just his own approach to customer issues, but those of his entire organization. Cowan is committed to the philosophy of “it’s all of us.” We fail together, we succeed together. This subtle choice of pronouns sends a powerful message to the outside world, and of course to every single one of the employees of the airport, about the kind of airport he envisions and is committed to.

Although the incident with the thrown bags was a low moment for both Swissport and Ryanair (the carrier ultimately responsible for ensuring that passenger belongings are handled properly), the forceful, positive response of the airport CEO can serve as a template for accountable leaders everywhere. The big takeaways here for leaders are: make good on your commitments to your customers and your employees; take appropriate action even when people you don’t employ make mistakes; and focus on always making decisions around what you say you believe and value.


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