UAL and the Importance of Leadership Integrity

Last week’s post in The New York Times summarized in less than 10 words the implications of corrupt leadership: “It is certainly a new chapter for United.” And the new chapter had best look better than the old if United Airlines (UAL) intends to keep planes in the sky.

Since 2010, when former UAL CEO Jeff Smisek orchestrated a less than well-planned merger between United and Continental, United’s performance plummeted in just about every area that gets the attention of Wall Street. Then last week, Smisek and other UAL top leaders resigned abruptly while the Feds announced a corruption investigation.

Smisek has not been convicted or pleaded guilty to any felony or act of crime stemming from the investigation, but if that should occur, then UAL very possibly collapses alongside so many other companies (remember Enron?) and becomes another case of  “abominable leadership without integrity.”

In Brandon Hall Group’s 2015 State of Leadership Development Study, half of all organizations identified “integrity” as the single most important leadership capability, with the next critical capability 11 percentage points behind. In my mind, there is no doubt that without integrity, there is no leader.

Source: 2015 Brandon Hall Group Leadership Development Study
Source: 2015 Brandon Hall Group Leadership Development Study

So what about the data then? Is it a lie? Is it lip service? Have we just not built in the checks and balances that keep honest leaders honest? Or, are we possibly blindly hiring, promoting, and enabling dishonest leaders to feel comfortable in executing dishonest acts?

Perhaps it is some combination of all, but in studying and analyzing the next data point and hundreds more like them, it seems crystal clear that we are absolutely doing our businesses a disservice by not executing on a leadership assessment strategy that has the statistical soundness and rigor to accurately assess a leader’s desire, ability, and propensity to perform against a minimum set of organizational performance standards – beginning with integrity.

Source: 2015 Brandon Hall Group Leadership Development Study
Source: 2015 Brandon Hall Group Leadership Development Study

I’m not suggesting that if UAL had a leadership assessment strategy that it wouldn’t be in trouble today. I am promoting the invaluable contributions of such assessment tools in minimizing risks, particularly ones that could devastate your business. I’m also suggesting that, despite the bad rap that often accompanies any discussion of “leadership competencies,” business leaders should put aside their distaste for the word “competencies” and pay attention to the make-or-break influence that mastery of critical leadership competencies has on your business performance.

Corrupt leadership is a crime. The crime is given the means to sprout when we, as business and talent leaders, have simply not taken the time to know where our leaders stand on integrity, where we may have vulnerability, and eliminating the risk before it eliminates our business.

Until next time….

Laci Loew, VP and Principal Analyst, Talent Management
Brandon Hall Group

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