Faith, Flight Plan Guide JetBlue Boss: Other CEOs Need His Humility
Boston Herald Story By Jeff Benedict
JetBlue Airways recently made headlines after the worst operations breakdown in its seven-year history led to more than 1,000 canceled flights. There's been just as much good news about the way chief executive David Neeleman responded to the crisis - by bending over backward to admit failure, accept responsibility, apologize and compensate customers for their inconvenience.
Everyone from public relations experts to aviation analysts is praising Neeleman for doing things that are largely unheard of in corporate America.
While many chief executives would have ducked for cover or dispatched a spokesman, Neeleman appeared on David Letterman's show and said, "I'm not making excuses. We made a mistake. We put our crew members and our customers through hell, and we have solutions for this."
The next morning he appeared on national news shows, apologized profusely and unveiled a Customer Bill of Rights guaranteeing compensation to passengers whose flights were canceled. He admitted being "mortified and humiliated."
Humility doesn't come easy to chief executives, as we know from recent corporate scandals. This is where Neeleman's Mormon faith comes into play.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expects its members to serve in lay ministry positions typically held by paid clergy. There's no exception for chief executives. Neeleman spends 10 to 15 hours per week working directly with individuals who have made mistakes and are seeking redemption. That experience gives him a feel for what it's like to be on the wrong side of trouble.
The result is a chief executive who doesn't let pride prevent him from publicly admitting mistakes and asking forgiveness. It also explains his habit of frequently serving as a flight attendant or a baggage handler for his company's flights.
Neeleman is one of a handful of Mormons who have reached the pinnacle of the business world, and all behave much differently from the average chief executive. Two years ago I began interviewing him and several others who share his faith for a book about how their religion influences their approach to business.
Like the others, Neeleman has benefited from good parents, a strong work ethic, honesty, smarts and timing. But those qualities aren't unique to Mormons. What is unique, besides lay ministry, is that Mormon men are expected at age 19 to spend two years in a full-time unpaid service mission.
Neeleman spent his mission in the slums of Brazil, where he learned to speak Portuguese. He also learned what it feels like to serve people who are less fortunate. This was a key influence on Neeleman's decision to create JetBlue [ JBLU] on the premise of making customers king.
Another important aspect of Mormonism is tithing, a commandment that requires church members to give up 10 percent of gross earnings. This is a great insulator against greed, which has been the downfall of executives at Tyco, Enron, WorldCom and other companies.
Tithing also conditions people to be driven by things besides wealth. So it was a simple reflex for Neeleman to make his Customer Bill of Rights retroactive to cover all passengers inconvenienced in last month's storm - a decision that cost his company approximately $30 million.
JetBlue is led by a guy, conditioned by Mormonism, who isn't driven by money. Just look at his salary: He earns $200,000 annually. It gets more unusual. Neeleman donates his entire salary to a catastrophic fund that's been set up for JetBlue workers who fall on hard times. Not every board chairman can afford this level of charity, but giving up any income to fund an employee benefit is virtually unheard of in a world where most chief executives make many times Neeleman's salary.
It may be unreasonable to expect a chief executive who isn't spending many hours a week ministering to act this selflessly. But anyone can ask the question that Neeleman asked himself when this crisis struck: What is the right thing to do?
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