It’s often said that being in the top job in any capacity is a lonely endeavor. Nowhere is that more apparent this week than at the corner office of United Airlines.
Listen, by now you’re likely fatigued hearing the story of Dr. David Dao being dragged off United Express Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky. My intention here isn’t to belabor a story that has already been dissected on end for a week now.
By this point, we’ve all heard all the angles, retold many of the jokes and reposted most of the internet memes dedicated to making fun of United and it’s awful treatment of Dao, who obviously didn’t deserve to be physically dragged off a plane for his refusal to give up his seat to United personnel needing to get to Louisville Sunday night.
I’m also not going to defend United, whose response to the situation was clearly off base and tone deaf, and I won’t necessarily defend the immediate actions of its CEO, Oscar Munoz, whose blunder of an apology to the incident will likely go down in public relations lore.
This isn’t going to be a column about the greediness of airline overbooking, the intricacies of corporate PR strategy or opining on if a “belligerent” Dao should or shouldn’t have complied with the airline’s request that he leave the plane. These points serve little purpose for us, and have already been addressed many times elsewhere.
What I am going to address is a simple point that is somewhat obvious but isn’t often stated in these sorts of situations: Being a CEO sucks. Sometimes, as is the case of United and Munoz, it sucks badly.
Now, I don’t know of Munoz’s whereabouts on Sunday night as his company’s crew instructed law enforcement to remove Dao from the plane, an incident that sent him to the hospital to treat minor wounds. I would like to think that Munoz was taking a little bit of time on a Sunday to relax before the start of another workweek, but I also know that running a multinational corporation is a nonstop job. He probably wasn’t doing what I was doing Sunday night — wandering around Austin, Texas, in search of brisket tacos and local craft beer at the tail end of a brief vacation.
Needless to say, I’m willing to bet Munoz wasn’t standing by waiting to give direct instruction to this flight’s crew on how to handle the situation. I’m willing to place a bigger bet that Munoz likely wouldn’t have wanted the law enforcement official to use physical force as he did to remove Dao from the plane. Heck, and since we’re making bets, I’ll make a third that Munoz probably wasn’t sitting there weighing the risks of a policy that invites police involvement when a passenger refused to leave an overbooked flight.
In almost every conceivable way, it’s entirely realistic that, for a moment, Munoz felt as we all did seeing the video as it posted on social media for the first time. He was probably just as distraught and disgusted at the images. It’s hard to imagine that any human being would feel that Dao’s physical removal from the plane as it happened was the right thing to do. Perhaps the law enforcement official — who has been placed on leave — who foisted himself on Dao, and the other official assisting him — although a small part of me wonders if he, too, was in shock at what ultimately went down.
To be sure, Munoz’s official response to the event was abysmal. I won’t defend that. What I will defend is that being a CEO in that position is nearly a lose-lose scenario. Yes, this is why CEOs are well compensated, so I don’t feel sorry for Munoz in that sort of simplistic sense. When you run a public corporation of hundreds of thousands of employees, as Munoz does, how the heck is it possible to keep in your direct control every single thing that happens? It’s not.
Many top chiefs likely lose sleep over the prospect of such events. The video went viral on social media; the news broadcasts have been playing it on replay for who knows how many times each day since. There is very little Munoz could’ve done in the wake of the event to make it better. No matter what he said, no matter how many official apologies or statements United could possibly make, the video would keep playing, over and over, and the visual would be there: Passenger, blood on his face, being dragged off a United Airlines flight.
Many talented people aspire to corner office jobs, often because of the seemingly flashy benefits of the role. Being a CEO is undoubtedly the most challenging job in business — and, for this reason, many people seek it out. But it’s times like these that remind us how tough it is to be in the top job. Being tough sort of understates it.
The number of situations where the blame will ultimately fall on you are endless, and the number of things that you could do to mitigate the risks of them happening are finite.
Yes, with the benefit of hindsight, United could have had a better policy around passenger removal in that situation. It could have rethought its overbooking strategy, which isn’t unique to United but common in the industry. Sure, Munoz and his deputies could have foreseen an incident of this type happening and plotted an intricate flowchart to address it. There are a million things we as observers can point out as to how we would have acted better in that scenario. But we can’t predict the future or the behavior of third-party individuals with loose connections to our company — as this law enforcement official was to United.
But, sometimes, this sort of thing is just par for the course for CEOs. Being in the top job comes with great reward and great responsibility. Sometimes that responsibility is taking heat when the company does something wrong. Sometimes the heat results in the CEO losing their job. Time will tell how this plays out for United and Munoz.
Just remember: Being a CEO is great. Being a CEO of a giant public corporation is sometimes better. The scale of the decisions they get to make are large, and the amount of impact and accomplishment possible as a result seemingly endless.
But as United showed us this week, sometimes being a CEO is impossible to be good at. Sometimes being a CEO sucks and there’s very little they can do about it.
Frank Kalman is Talent Economy’s managing editor. To comment, email email@example.com.