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How Emotionally Intelligent People Use the American Airlines Rule to Become More Powerful Leaders


It’s also about a big error that many promising leaders make: letting their emotions dictate decisions, without realizing how they’re undermining their power in the process.

I call this phenomenon the American Airlines Rule, but that’s not because the folks at American Airlines are especially prone to this mistake. 

Instead, it’s because it was Doug Parker, the outgoing American Airlines CEO, who offered the best simple explanation of the problem that I’ve ever seen (along with how to avoid it). 

Don’t change the priority

Parker gave an interview just before the pandemic in which he explained what it’s like for him to fly his own airline as the CEO. Among his points:

  • First, besides flying for transportation like we all do, Parker flies to keep his eyes open, and to see what’s really going in the company that he’s led for many years.
  • Second, it turns out that Parker flies largely incognito, because while he goes by “Doug,” that’s in fact his middle name. His boarding pass, credit card and ID read, “William Parker,” so employees might not recognize him.
  • Third, and this is the real takeaway, Parker said he’s learned to hold his tongue when he’s in airports or on a plane, and he sees airline processes that aren’t working correctly.

Here’s why, as he told told Micheline Maynard for The Points Guy:

“You don’t want to change the priority of something that wasn’t a priority. You want to be careful not to have people drop what they are doing so they can take care of something you noticed.”

Double impact

I don’t know how early in his career Parker came to this realization, but I think it’s a timely point, especially given that he’ll be moving on from his post as CEO later this month.

It applies to almost any leader, in any industry, or any relationship. And, it illustrates two key tenets of emotional intelligence when it comes to business:

  • Being careful not to let emotional reactions dictate your practical reactions (as opposed to reasoned, thoughtful actions).
  • Being aware of emotional messages you might communicate to the people you lead (intended or not), along with your actual, practical guidance.

Here, we have a situation with double impact, where the making fast suggestions based on emotional reactions also creates an additional emotional reaction in other people.

The mere fact that the CEO told them to do something makes it take on more importance.

Watch the borders

Let’s illustrate this with another example from history — one that’s a bit dated, but that you might find hilarious. It’s about J. Edgar Hoover, who was the director of the FBI for nearly 50 years during the 20th century. 

As the story goes, an agent once wrote a memo for the director about an investigation. Hoover returned it to him with a handwritten note across the top: “Watch the borders!”

Instead of asking for more guidance (Hoover was intimidating), the agent simply made an educated guess about what the director meant, and diverted other FBI agents to the international borders with Mexico and Canada.

Only later did someone realize what Hoover had actually meant: His note had nothing to do with international borders; he was simply annoyed that the agent had used very narrow margins (“borders”) on the memo.

“The boss was just down here…”

One more example, a bit more generic: You don’t need to be running an airline or a massive government investigative force for this rule to apply.

Imagine that you’re the CEO of a small factory, and that your strategic assessment has consistently been that quality control has to be the number-1 priority. 

But while out on the floor, you notice that the pace of production is lagging behind. You feel anxious, or awkward, or else maybe you just want to inspire people and be perceived as a good boss. So, you offer encouragement, and a challenge: 

“If we can make X widgets by the end of this shift, everyone gets a bonus.”

The team is excited, and they work a bit faster. But, look at what you’ve done: You’ve introduced a competing “most important thing” to your operation, and you’ve done it in an off-the-cuff way.

  1. Yes, quality control is the top priority.
  2. Except for when the boss comes down here and decides that speed is more important.

Doing this occasionally probably doesn’t have a significant impact, but imagine the cumulative effect if you make a habit of it. 

  • “The boss wanted to know why there were so many people standing in the front of the factory floor.”
  • “She wondered why the break room was so messy.”
  • “He mentioned that our travel expenses were up 10 percent over last month.”

You’re even more likely to create unintentional priorities if you show significant emotion in the process.

“The boss was down here, and he wanted to know why so many people were standing around, he was ticked off about it.”

“If everything’s a priority…”

It’s not that you can only have or communicate one priority. In fact, it’s a truth of business that you probably have to manage a whole bunch of competing demands.

Practicing the “American Airlines Rule” (I guess we could call it the “J. Edgar Hoover Rule,” but I’m now sure how many readers will remember who he was) means thinking first, before making these kinds of pronouncements. 

We spent a lot of time examining emotional intelligence and leadership, and rightly so. If you can learn to leverage both your emotions and the emotions of those around you to make it more likely that you’ll achieve your ultimate goals, that’s probably a good thing.

As I make the point in my free ebook, 9 Smart Habits of People With Very High Emotional Intelligence, this is also about controlling emotions so that you don’t dilute your power. 

If you react emotionally to every problem, your emotion will signal urgency. And if you communicate that everything is a priority, then eventually nothing will be a priority. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.


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