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Today, Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, responded to a question on CNBC about a viral video of a passenger repeatedly punching the seat of the woman in front of him because she dared to recline. Response to the video has been swift and furious on social media, with people divided over the proper ‘seat recline’ etiquette.

So, of course Bastian was asked about what the host of Squawk Box called “reclinegate.”

Basically, Bastian is saying that he would never recline his seat because it would be inconvenient to people, but that others should be allowed to recline their seats and should ask. Which is, of course, the ‘right’ answer from a public relations perspective. It’s the type of answers CEOs instinctively give, because they don’t want to offend anyone. It’s designed to say “whichever side of this issue you’re on, I’m on your side.” 

Except, that means you’re not on anyone’s side. 

Of course, some Twitter responses were quick to point out that Bastian’s comments seem a little tone-deaf. The inconvenience of someone reclining their seat is only a thing because airlines have consistently made their main cabins crowded with more seats and less legroom. That means he’s not exactly the best spokesperson for in-flight seat etiquette.

As a leader, sometimes you just have to take a stand for what’s right, even though you know some people won’t like your position. Even when those people are your customers, you owe it to your brand to be consistent in your beliefs and transparent about what you think is right.

As an aside, and this is a lesson for all of us–not just leaders, just because you have the ‘right’ to do something, doesn’t mean you should. Clearly the woman has a right to recline her seat, but that doesn’t mean she should. She obviously hasn’t broken any rule, but on a flight in coach, there is literally nothing worse than the seat in front of you coming back into your lap.

Which brings me back to Bastian’s response. If Bastian would never recline his seat because he thinks it would inconvenience people, then just say that. 

Of course, the guy in the viral video is clearly wrong. It doesn’t matter how frustrated you are, taking it out on the back of a seat is what a young child would do. (I know, I have four of them.) Despite the fact that everyone who watched that video can relate to the feeling, that’s not how adults behave.

Adults set an example by doing the right thing. So do leaders. 

Published on: Feb 14, 2020

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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