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The CEO of United Airlines Just Made a Bold Prediction. These 3 Words Mattered Most


People will forgive a lot if they believe in you, but you can squander that faith quickly if you ask them to give their all for a mission that just isn’t important enough, or a goal that simply isn’t enough to matter.

Against this standard, let’s talk about Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, and a video he recorded for United Airlines employees last week. It’s an intriguing example of how to set the bar high. 

Time will tell if it works, but it’s also a good example of why I think business leaders in all industries should watch what and learn from the airlines–the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s the key theme of my free ebook, Flying Business Class, which you can download here

So, let’s examine Kirby’s speech, according to the airline site Live and Let’s Fly, whose Matthew Klint said he watched the video. Here are a few short, relevant lines for our purposes:

  • “What we’re doing in the next couple years is going to really solidify our position as the leading global airline… 
  • By the time we get to next summer … we’re going to be the largest airline in the world
  • [W]e’ve given ourselves the chance to be, not just the biggest, but the best airline in the world.”

This all sounds pretty standard, I suppose, except when you realize that United Airlines historically hasn’t been close to being the world’s biggest or leading airline.

The superlatives for size have gone to American Airlines most recently. (Worth noting: Kirby served as president of American Airlines until 2016, working closely with current American Airlines CEO Doug Parker, and it’s very clear American is in his sites.)

And yet: “leading,” “biggest,” and “best.” (I think we can consider “largest” and “biggest” as the same superlative for our purposes.) And, with the stated goal of making it happen by next summer — 9 or 10 months from now, at most.

That’s pretty ambitious. It goes beyond the general uptick in optimism that we’ve seen from Kirby’s messaging recently, after standing out among some of his airline peers for espousing realism during the earlier months of the pandemic.

Now, I don’t root for one U.S. airline’s success against the other. I want them to do well because air travel is important, and simply because I wish their stakeholders well as I would for most companies, but I try to remain an objective and attentive observer.

United Airlines hasn’t responded to my query regarding exactly how Kirby thinks we should measure these goals: Highest customer ratings? Most passengers flown? Revenue or profit or market capitalization?

Regardless, I don’t know whether Kirby is on target or not when he tells his thousands of employees he thinks they can get there by next summer in any event.

Still: See what I mean about following the airlines?

It’s a unique industry, where the competitors are basically selling the same commodity, and where you have an army of analysts and journalists following every move, and reporting on everything: right down to the specific language leaders use in internal messages meant to rally the troops.

That’s why the example here isn’t really about airlines, or rivalries, or video messages. Instead, it’s about leadership.

No matter what industry you’re in, if you’re using words like “leading,” “biggest,” and “best” when you’re telling your people about your goals, you’re more likely to be on the right track.

Show them a plan that makes sense to get there, and you might just find you’ve got an advantage over your competitors–to say nothing of some noticeably more loyal employees.

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


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