Private School Leadership Lessons from the Southwest Airlines Fiasco

Christmas wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

On Christmas Eve, my youngest son, Ben, was scheduled to fly from Milwaukee to Tampa to spend a few days with us over the holiday. As typical, I always check the flight status several times throughout the day. I had noticed that his flight was delayed for a few minutes and then the delay got longer.

Then, my son called me late in the afternoon to tell me that his flight had been cancelled. His plane was left sitting at the gate while He stood in a long line to find out that there were no other options available.

For the first time in his life, and for the first time as a father, my son would not be spending Christmas with me. There was nothing I could do. It was out of my control.

My emotions hit later that evening thinking about how we were supposed to be together.

The unexpected disruption of our plans, and that of countless others, happened as a result of a massive series of cancellations by Southwest Airlines. I have been flying Southwest regularly for over 20 years, and always earn the highest status, and yet I had never experienced anything like this before. Neither had Southwest airlines.

Between my work as a head of school and my work with hundreds of schools over the last 20 years, I quickly saw some relevant lessons that private, independent, and faith-based schools could learn from Southwest Airlines’ situation.

What can you learn from the Southwest Airlines fiasco and apply to your leadership at your school?

In this blog post, I discuss five leadership lessons from the Southwest Airlines fiasco.

1—Apologize when you mess up – You will mess up. It is inevitable. There will be something that goes wrong. Someone will say the wrong thing. A misstep will occur. As a former head of school, I remember several mess ups! Whatever it is, it is important for you to apologize when you mess up. Let’s just hope that the mess up isn’t as big as that of Southwest Airlines! The good thing is that their CEO apologized several times and took responsibility for what happened. This is the first step in the recovery process after a significant misstep.

2—Take steps to correct the issue – When something goes wrong, you will have the opportunity to correct the issue at your school. It is important that you take the necessary steps to correct the issue so that it doesn’t happen again. This failure at Southwest Airlines was so significant and devastating to their brand and loyal customer base that it will take time to correct the issues and rebuild trust. Southwest must ensure its customer base and employees that this will never happen again. They must correct the issues that caused the cancellations. And, when issues occur at your school, you must use it as a learning opportunity and correct it for the future.

3—Always focus on how you treat your people – This principle is key. My understanding is that Southwest had drifted away from their investment back into their employees. While I don’t know all of the details, one of the reasons why Southwest has succeeded in the past has been their outstanding reputation and their personnel. If the employees at your school become disgruntled, this will affect your operations and word-of-mouth. Regardless of what you go through, your school will only be as strong as your people—your employees, your parents, your students, and more. You must treat your people in the best way possible.

4—Proactively invest in systems that provide for smooth operations – Southwest Airlines experienced a massive systems failure. Apparently, they chose not to invest in improving their scheduling and communications system over the years. Obviously, this caught up with them. Your school runs on systems and processes. It is important that you are always working to upgrade your operations so that the experience at your school is as smooth as possible.

5—Protect your good word-of-mouth – The negative word-of-mouth that Southwest Airlines experienced over the holidays has been detrimental to their brand. This is not something that is easily overcome, especially after it all came crashing down. Keep this in mind at your school as your word-of-mouth is critical to your reputation and continued momentum for growth. As a leader, you should work to protect your good word-of-mouth and your school’s reputation. A leader must be proactive in providing visionary and action-oriented leadership to move a school forward.

These are valuable lessons that we can learn from the failures of Southwest Airlines. We can also learn from how they respond to this situation. While they can’t turn back the clock and get my son here for Christmas, what they have done is to respond apologetically, pay for alternative transportation, and provide additional rewards points to pay for future flights. Southwest is on their way toward rebuilding trust. However, this will take time.

What can you learn from the Southwest Airline fiasco and apply to your leadership at your school?