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The CEO of United Airlines Just Shared the Perfect Leadership Message for 2020, and It's Only 8 Word


I admit, I was surprised to see United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby quote Winston Churchill.

Not because the quote isn't apt. It is, and then some. 


Instead, it's because when United Airlines announced last year that Kirby would be taking over for then-CEO Oscar Munoz, I read account after account describing Kirby as numbers-oriented and blunt-spoken.


So, I wondered how that kind of leadership style would translate during the pandemic -- a time of great challenges and uncertainty that requires inspiration and rhetoric of a type most leaders have never had to summon before.


This week, United held an earnings call. The transcript afterward ran 11,000 words, and it marked the first time since the airline furloughed 13,000 workers at the start of the month that a group of analysts and reporters have been able to question United Airlines executives about the airline's future. 


Enter Churchill.


Calling this a challenging time for airlines is an extreme understatement. United reported that its passenger revenue was down 84 percent. And when Kirby began his remarks, he had to start by thanking United employees for doing things like voluntarily leaving the airline, or taking fewer hours, to cut down on labor costs.


But past is past, and while Kirby said at one point that he thinks the airline industry won't fully rebound until 2024, he also went back 78 years to find the words that strike the right tone for leaders in this exceptional year.


The key quote -- as noted, it's actually Kirby quoting Churchill -- runs just eight words, although the context is a bit longer and worth including:


[T]oday, what we're expressing is not a shift from pessimism to optimism, as much as it is an expression of confidence in the future.  There's a great quote that I love ... from Winston Churchill that he said in 1942, over two years before the end of World War II after the African campaign and the Brits won in Africa, that "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end.

It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."  And I think that is the moment we're at now at United Airlines. ... [W]e have done what it takes in the initial phases to have confidence. ... [W]e'll look back at this as the turning point. The light at the end of the tunnel is a long way away. But this is the turning point.


The key eight words: "It is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."


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