You don’t have to look very hard in any given week to find examples of leaders behaving badly. This week had a couple of doozies.
First, we had the story of Heather Cho, the vice president of in-flight customer service for Korean Air. She was traveling on her own airline and as her plane from taxiing away from its gate at JFK, a flight attendant gave her macadamia nuts without asking if she wanted any and (worse!) left them in the package. Cho flipped out and called the lead flight attendant to her seat to dress him down. She ordered him to look up the correct macadamia nut procedure in the KAL customer service manual. When he couldn’t produce the manual, she fired him on the spot and ordered the pilot to take the plane back to the gate so the lead attendant could get off the plane. The story went viral and created a PR problem for the airline. They apparently didn’t see it as that big a deal, however. Cho lost her job as head of in-flight service but is still a vice president with KAL. The fact that her dad is chairman of the conglomerate that owns the airline likely has something to do with that.
Then, there’s the case of Harvard Business School professor Ben Edelman. As first reported on Boston.com and later on Slate and in The Washington Post and elsewhere, Edelman was overcharged $4 on a $53 order of Chinese takeout from a local restaurant that had some out of date information on its website. Over the course of several days and what had to be many hours of email writing, Edelman escalated a simple and honest oversight into the threat of legal action and gave boatloads of grief to a guy who’s running a family restaurant and was trying to make things right. When the story went viral, Edelman backed off and posted a short statement on his own website saying he had gone too far. Some great role modeling there for his students at the B School.
Maybe one of the good things about the 24/7, go-viral-in-a-heartbeat age that we live in is that it's somewhat more difficult to be a jerk as a leader and get away with it. It used to be that the question leaders needed to ask themselves before doing something untoward was “Do I want to read about this on the front page of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times? The likelihood of that actually happening back in the day was pretty small. Now, it’s exponentially larger and, as I wrote here last year, the impact of your freak-out can have such a big ripple effect.
If someone can Tweet about what you’re doing, post your emails or shoot a video of you freaking out on their cell phones (and they can and will do all of those things), you really have to stop and ask yourself: “Do I want to present myself this way to a large part of the world?”
Not a bad question to ask before you head down the path of behaving badly.