Where Were The Leaders?

Leadership is easy as an academic study; it’s when our opportunity to lead shows up in real life that it all gets difficult. We saw just how difficult on Sunday, aboard a United Express flight.

The revelation of United Express flight 3411 isn’t: Surprise! airlines have the right to bump you from their flights any time they chose! You knew that already. It says so in the fine print of your ticket — which, I don’t know about you, but I read thoroughly every time I schedule a flight, just to make sure the terms haven’t changed in any way that would harm the airlines should my business gets in the way of theirs (can you sense my sarcasm?).

I would go so far as to say that the revelation of United Express flight 3411 isn’t even that officials boarded the plane and used aggressive and excessive force. Sadly, we’ve seen that before.

The revelation of United Express flight 3411 isn’t even the newest fact — that the flight wasn’t actually overbooked, it was just full, and airline employees come first. Silly you; you didn’t believe the old mantra “the customer is always right,” did you? That is merely a platitude, certainly not a belief of the airline industry.

No. The revelation that keeps SCREAMING at me is that the plane lacked a single leader. No one, NO ONE, stood up and said this was wrong. Not the pilot, not a flight attendant, not a single passenger. We watched, we recorded on our iPhones, we gasped in horror, all the while letting it happen. And I say “we” intentionally, because I wonder how many of us (myself included) would have done the same amount of nothing.  

Just because the men dragging Mr. Dao from his seat were “officials” doesn’t mean they have the right to behave the way they did. And our Declaration of Independence clearly states:  “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it…”

Surely the form of government manhandling Mr. Dao was becoming destructive and he, with his fellow passengers, had the right to alter it.

Mr Dao was not a terrorist. He was causing no harm. He was not a threat to other passengers, or impairing the safety of the aircraft. He was a legal, paying customer with his own obligations, uninspired to give up a seat he legally and rightfully paid for – JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER PASSENGER ON THAT AIRCRAFT, none of whom volunteered their seat to help a 69-year-old man protected by our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence, which clearly states our inalienable right to liberty.  

No one stepped up.

The situation simply lacked leadership. 

The truth is that leadership is hard in real life. Leadership takes courage.  To stand in front of other passengers and protect a fellow citizen is scary. The thought of opposing authority is risky. And what if no one stands up with you? I get it. That’s why I used the pronoun “we” earlier.

The truth of the matter, however, is that’s exactly what is asked of us: to stand up and be seen. To be vulnerable. To speak out. To lead. Brene Brown teaches us that vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, happiness, and connection. We need more of that. Leadership isn’t just for those who are elected or appointed; leadership is for all of us. It’s time for more of us, myself again included, to stand up and lead.  If someone had done that on fight 3411, perhaps Mr. Dao wouldn’t have been bleeding. With a little support, perhaps a flight attendant could have found the courage to stand up for humanity over policy.  

In the end, leadership is governed by the premise that leadership makes those being led BETTER, not worse; empowered, not cowering; safe, not fearful. That didn’t happen on this flight.