January 30, 2023
Leading Through Failure: What We Can Learn from Southwest Airlines
How do leaders react to failure? And what can we learn when they do?
In life, failure is inevitable at some point, and if you’ve led in ministry for any length of time, you know that you’re going to let people down. Often, this is a result of our own oversights and imperfect leadership - it’s just a part of being human! An ongoing priority for leaders is to always be growing, learning and seeking wisdom.
Over the holidays, Southwest Airlines went through a massive operational meltdown that will likely end up costing the company upwards of $725 million in lost revenue, reimbursements and compensation. Nearly 17,000 flights were canceled and millions of people had their holiday plans impacted.
When organizations go through crises like this, there are almost always morsels of wisdom to glean from how leaders respond - both positively and negatively. The way Bob Jordan, CEO of Southwest Airlines, led through their crisis offers some simple yet powerful wisdom for how ministry leaders can lead through failures of their own.
Southwest released this statement to every Southwest Airlines customer and employee on behalf of Bob Jordan. Within the statement (should you choose not to read it), Jordan modeled three things that every leader should try to replicate any time there is a failure …
1. Humbly own the failure and repent
In Jordan’s statement, he acknowledged that Southwest Airlines (he puts himself in that bucket) let their customers and employees down. Jordan wrote, “We fell short of your expectations and the high standards we have of ourselves, and for that we are deeply sorry.”
He didn’t blame the previous regime of leadership (he has only been in this role since February 2022), bad weather or holiday travel volume. Rather, He stepped up to the plate, took ownership of the problem and apologetically acknowledged how it hurt many people.
2. Transparent communication
Many leaders are quick to minimize the scale of a problem or failure and try to deflect scrutiny.
Jordan could have easily made a generic statement like, “We have begun an internal audit to uncover the issues behind this failure.” Instead, he admitted publicly that he knew there were years long operational issues needing to be addressed.
He didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to insulate the public from the truth, rather, he laid it all out in an effort to continue to pursue trust. By doing this, he actually carved a path forward for the last point …
3. Pursue Reconciliation
Reconciliation. In business terms, this can be fairly transactional. The customer is always right, so if they’re dissatisfied, refund them, reimburse their unexpected expenses, go above and beyond to mitigate the inconvenience. It appears that Southwest has gone above and beyond to make things right with their customers and employees with great cost to the company. Additionally, they have laid out how they’re going to change, inviting accountability from the customer.
In ministry terms, it’s a little more tricky. It’s relationally, emotionally and spiritually charged, so it’s messy. But, this is precisely what we’re called to live out as followers of Jesus (2 Cor. 5).
2 Corinthians 12:9 is well-known and often quoted: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Ministry leaders, your weakness and vulnerability are critical in building the Kingdom of God. It’s not in your powerful sermon where the power of Christ is modeled, it’s not in your flawless execution of programs where Jesus gets glory, it’s not in your beautifully designed visuals where people are captured by the awe of God. It’s in your weakness made perfect by the power of Jesus.
May you pursue humble repentance, transparency and reconciliation whenever there’s an opportunity to do so, because it’s in this that Christ’s power is revealed and people encounter the living God!