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Image: silhouette of an airplane above palm trees

Navigating Turbulence: Four Approaches to Crisis Management

This article by Bob Glazer originally appeared on Friday Forward.

Warren Buffett once said that being the CEO of an airline is no fun. Last week, I published my long-anticipated interview with Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, and given how often crisis management came up, I suspect Buffett was onto something.  

Ed was a senior leader at Delta during 9/11 and was CEO during COVID. As a result, there are few leaders better qualified to share crisis management wisdom. 

Leading a company when everything is going well is not that difficult. However, over my career, I have seen far too many leaders turn from Jekyll to Hyde at the first sign of a crisis. It’s almost always those turbulent moments that define an organization and its leaders.  

I had four major takeaways from our conversation on crisis leadership: 

Lean Into Values 

Many leaders and companies preach the importance of values. However, many leaders abandon their personal or company values at the first sign of trouble. 

If you betray your values when things go wrong, they aren’t really values at all, they’re platitudes. Living your values will often cost you something. For example, consider how CVS took a $2 billion revenue loss when they stopped selling cigarettes because they didn’t fit their values as a healthcare company. 

In our conversation, Ed revealed that he left Delta temporarily after 9/11, believing the company wasn’t living up to its values, especially with how it treated its people during the airline’s bankruptcy. He then made commitment to values a centerpiece of his leadership as CEO, especially during the pandemic.  

Image: silhouette of an airplane above palm trees
Source: Unsplash // Eduardo Velazco Guart

Crisis Management Starts Before A Crisis 

COVID was an existential crisis for Delta—the airline burned through $100 million a day in the first 90 days (almost $10 billion total) and had to persuade nearly 50,000 employees to take unpaid leave with benefits to keep the airline solvent as business halted. 

These extreme measures would have ruined most companies, but Delta was saved by actions taken before the crisis. First, the company had consciously built a cash cushion for years to protect them from an inevitable emergency. Second, Delta had just paid a record $1.6 billion in profit share a month earlier to employees and painted a plane with 90,000 employees’ names. As a result, Delta had a huge trust bank built with employees, which allowed them to shrink the company in half without destroying its culture or trust in leadership. 

In the end, Delta didn’t have to furlough a single employee, a feat that will surely be featured in future business school case studies. 

No Decision Is A Decision 

Failure or hesitation to make a decision is a decision in itself—and generally delaying a decision only makes the choice harder in the future. Often, we assume there is a right or wrong choice in every decision, but that is a false binary; what often matters more is how well you execute on the chosen path.

Plus, deciding a course of action earlier gives you more time to course correct later if you realize you’ve misread the situation and need to adapt. In contrast, it’s usually the indecisive leaders who find themselves stuck with dwindling options later. 

Be Visible and Honest 

The last place a leader should be in a crisis is cowering in a metaphorical or actual bunker. When your employees, partners, and customers are worried, it’s your job to be out front answering hard questions, rather than trying to spin or control the narrative from a hiding place. People need to hear and trust your words even if you don’t have all the answers; when you are silent in the early stages of a crisis, it’s very hard to gain back people’s trust.  

In crisis leadership remember that, while it’s important to be reassuring, it’s not necessarily a leader’s job to assure people that everything is going to be okay, especially if you don’t control all the variables. While doing so is easier in the short term, nothing puts trust at risk more than a false sense of security. My experience is that people can handle the truth; what they can’t handle is being told one thing and then experiencing something completely different. 

While you might never have regularly occurring crises that an airline CEO is subject to, all leaders can benefit from these principles.  

I would also strongly encourage you to listen to my conversation with Ed; it’s easy to see why he was named CEO of the Year for 2023 and how he’s been able to make Delta Air Lines the envy of its industry over his 25 years of servant leadership.

Quote of The Week

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin

Have a great weekend!


Robert Glazer

Content Partner

Robert Glazer is the founder and CEO of Acceleration Partners, the author of the inspirational newsletter Friday Forward, and the #1 Wall Street Journal, USA Today and international bestselling author of four books: Elevate, Friday Forward, How To Thrive In The Virtual Workplace and Performance Partnerships.  He is a sought-after speaker by companies and organizations around the world and is the host of The Elevate Podcast.

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