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Leading by Example: The Jet Blue Story

A few years ago I was flying from Denver, CO to Boston, MA on JetBlue, a great budget airline based out of New York, NY. At the time, this was the only non-stop, red-eye flight between these two cities. I remember, it was a beautiful February day: crips blue sky, clear cold air and the mountains glistening in the distance. The flight was due to depart at 11.30pm (getting into Boston at about 5.30am). However, this being Colorado, the weather can change very quickly and, at about 6pm, it began to snow. And it snowed. And snowed. And snowed. So by the time 11.30pm came around, there was about six inches of snow on the ground and the airport, effectively, shut down.

So there we were, about 60 of us, waiting for the delayed inbound flight. Midnight came and went. 1am. 2am. 2.30am. And we were still sitting there, delayed. Eventually, at about 3am the inbound flight landed and the passengers deplaned. Once they has cleaned and catered the aircraft (an Airbus A320), we were called to board. I remember there were two lines to board: one had a middle-aged woman (in a blue JetBlue shirt) scanning boarding passes and the other line had a gentleman in his mid-sixties, (also in an open-necked blue shirt and slightly ruffled hair) scanning boarding passes. I happened to be in his line and, as he scanned my ticket, he said “Welcome to JetBlue. Enjoy the flight”.

And so we all climbed aboard. Now, JetBlue has a philosophy of “visible leadership”. On most airlines, we never really get to see our leader – the Captain of the flight. All that usually happens is that, while taxiing to the runway, you hear this disembodied voice saying “This is your captain speaking. Welcome to flight x-y-z. We’re number two for take-off and will be in the air momentarily (which always worries me a bit, because I want to sort of stay up there). For any of you who have flown on JetBlue, however, this doesn’t happen. What does happen is, before the plane leaves the gate, the captain comes out of the cockpit, picks up the PA phone and, while waving to the passengers, introduces himself: “Hi. I’m captain Bob and I will be flying you to Boston. Welcome to JetBlue…etc., etc.). This is great, because you actually get to see your leader.

Well, on this delayed flight, this did not happen. In fact, instead of the captain coming out of the cockpit, the person who scanned my boarding pass (the sixty-ish guy with ruffled hair) came onto the plane and picked up the PA phone. And then he said the following: “Ladies and Gentleman. Welcome to Jet Blue and the JetBlue experience. I am terribly sorry for the delay and we are going to be on our way to Boston very shortly. I would just like to take this opportunity to introduce myself: may name is David Neelman, the founder and CEO of JetBlue”.

Wow! And what did 60 delayed passenger do at 3.30am? We all clapped! When have you ever been on a delayed flight when everyone claps?

Leadership Lessons Learned

There are two key leadership lessons that can be learned from this story. First of all, and the most important, is leading by example. JetBlue actually has a policy that, no matter who you are, if you are an employee of the airline and you are traveling on a JetBlue flight, regardless of whether you are on duty or not, you have a duty to help turn the aircraft around. You will always be able to identify the JetBlue employees because, as they board the plane, they will be handed a pair of blue gloves (to protect themselves when cleaning the toilets, emptying seat back pockets and generally doing the yucky stuff). David Neeleman just happened to be flying in to Denver on the inbound flight and so, as per the company policy, he helped board the plane before going about his business.

The other leadership lesson is what this type of leading by example says to the employees, passengers, shareholders, airport workers and any other interest stakeholder. Not only does it send a message of one-team to everyone involved (i.e. no one is above the policy), but it also speaks volumes to the passengers who see a leader who is completely and totally invested in his organization and the passengers whom it serves.


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