Leadership During A Crisis With CEO Ed Bastian

Ed Bastian has had his hands full navigating Delta through the pandemic. If you think you’ve had a rough go, imagine being the CEO of an airline right now. It’s a war on all fronts to still have any business at all whenever this ends. Time will tell if he succeeds. Bastian recently appeared on the Masters of Scale podcast to talk about what they’re doing internally to manage the crisis. Anyone interested in wartime leadership should check it out. Here are a few key takeaways.

It may sound inspirational meme-ish at first, but let this sink in. Bastian says, “Crises don’t build character, they define character.” He doesn’t mean we won’t learn and adapt through trying times. He does want us to focus our awareness on our actions and how they are perceived by others. What we do is who we are. By communicating this message regularly to his team, he’s reminding them how they will be measured and empowering them to live up to a standard they want to be defined by.

The business of flying has been one of the more obvious casualties of COVID-19. Outside of dire transportation needs, demand has gotten about as close to zero as it can get. That doesn’t mean Bastian is just waiting for demand to return. He says it’s their job to bring demand back by bringing confidence back. Talk about extreme ownership. This is a very clever shifting of the narrative.

The pandemic happened to everyone. It sapped confidence around the world. The crisis is out of our control, but our response isn’t. Bastian can’t engineer a cure, but he can engineer means to make people feel confident. If your customers are scared to do something, the only way those customers are coming back is if you make it feel not-scary anymore. This is as important for their employees as it is for their customers too. There’s a social side of confidence here, they need to show how it’s their priority in order to get that confidence to spread.

We’re all facing a difficult time. Bastian’s situation is extreme, but that makes him interesting to study now (and even more interesting to study later, once this all plays out – successfully or not). No matter what cards we’re holding, we have the choice to own the problem, empower people to help us solve it, and take control of the story our customers need to here. This is what wartime leadership looks like.