This is a story about American Airlines, corporate culture, and a big challenge that's easy for business leaders to miss.

Let's be frank: American Airlines has some issues. 

  • Last month, American came in dead last in a ranking of the best and worst U.S. airlines.
  • If we judge by stock price, American Airlines is down about 44 percent from a year ago (and down about 17 percent even before the coronavirus-related tanking last week).
  • And the airline has two dozen Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft that will be grounded through at least August now--and reportedly another 76 on order.

So, perhaps it's not the moment when people would expect the leader of American Airlines, CEO Doug Parker, to articulate one of the key tensions that any business leader has to face--and to come up with a pretty smart way of addressing it.

The context was an interview Parker did recently with Micheline Maynard at The Points Guy. He talked about what it's like for him to fly on American Airlines himself--he said he usually does a "walk-through," talks with flight attendants, and checks out the TSA line and  the break room, for example.

Then, he hit on what I think is the most important part:

Parker: I'm trying to see what customers are seeing. I'm looking for choke points. I'm seeing where lines are forming and where processes aren't moving, and I want to know why. ...

Maynard: If you notice something amiss in a process American can control, do you bring it up?

Parker: I do, but I can't think of a time when the answer wasn't, "Oh, yes, we're working on it." ... Any CEO will tell you that you may see things and question them, but you have to be very careful doing anything about it.

Maynard: Why?

Parker: You don't want to change the priority of something that wasn't a priority. You want to be careful not to have people drop what they are doing so they can take care of something you noticed.

Those 13 words that I've highlighted above--they're key.

Especially in a large organization (American Airlines has 133,700 employees), a leader's most powerful tool is the ability to create culture. Reacting in real time to minor problems can mean unintentionally upending that culture.

As Parker points out, you don't want to "change the priority" by mistake.

This doesn't mean you never point out small problems. But it does mean being strategic and thoughtful--careful not to step on the culture and the priorities you're trying to encourage.

Think back to before you were the leader. If your boss signaled that some minor thing was important, the easiest way to make your life more comfortable would be to make sure that minor thing was always taken care of.

If it was a true priority, great. If it happened to be an off-the-cuff thing the boss mentioned right then--well, not so great.

One last detail. Parker was asked how employees react when they see his name on the flight manifest.

Answer: they usually don't.

That's because while he's known as Doug Parker, "Doug" is actually his middle name, so his reservation and ticket always read, "William Parker."

All the better, for a CEO who doesn't want to upend his company's priorities.