Here's a leadership question, courtesy of Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. When you're leading a team in difficult times, is it better to exude optimism or lean toward realism? 

This is the sort of thing I cover in my free e-book, Flying Business Class: 10 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines, about what business leaders can learn from watching the airlines. (You're invited to download it here.)

Over the past 10 days or so, we've had the chance to watch as Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta Air Lines, and Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines, each took a significantly different rhetorical approach as they predicted the way forward during 2021.

First, Bastian at Delta. During his airline's most recent earnings call, I was struck by how often Bastian and his team used variations of words like hope, optimism, and confidence despite the current challenges. 

It wasn't just me who walked away with that impression; many analysts and observers noticed the "optimistic tone." 

But then, last week, during United's earnings call, Kirby took the opposite tack. Here's an excerpt from his initial remarks:

From the beginning of the crisis, our approach has been to be clear-eyed about the challenges and likely course of the recovery. That's often made us appear more pessimistic and that's perhaps still true today. But being realistic instead of either optimistic or pessimistic has given us a clear advantage.

As Ted Reed characterized United's leadership's attitude on the airline site The Points Guy: "United says recovery is coming, but not soon."

Now, of course none of this is a monolith. There were portions of Bastian's Delta remarks when he was less sanguine, and there were portions of Kirby's United remarks when he was a bit more positive.

"[W]e're very confident in the long term," Kirby said at one point, and he also emphasized that distinction between realism and pessimism.

But overall, it seems that there's a real dichotomy. And the value for us is in using it as a jumping off point to explore how to lead when the short-term or even the medium-term outlook is troubling.

That much is true across the airline industry; it's certainly in trouble. Delta Air Lines lost $9 billion in 2021, and Bastian called it "the toughest year in Delta's history." United Airlines lost $7.1 billion for the year.

And both Bastian at Delta and Kirby at United agree that real, long-term recovery won't arrive until there's widespread vaccine distribution, and people simply feel safe going about their normal lives.

They seem to have different projections on exactly when we might reach that point, but we'll know it when we see it.

I don't have a stake in either Delta or United. (I mean that literally: I don't invest in the travel industry, partly because I write about it so often.) But I do want the industry and the people who work in it to succeed. 

So, which is the right approach?

  • Optimism can become self-reinforcing, meaning that people who believe in an optimistic outcome might be more likely to make it happen.
  • But trust is a leader's most valuable commodity. Tell people that things will get better, and you risk losing that trust if they in fact don't improve.

This isn't an article where we are going to reach the final answer. If it were, and I knew which one was the right approach, I suppose I might have to quit writing, and revisit that self-imposed ban on investing in airlines. 

But it's an apt question to ponder as a business leader--maybe one that changes on the basis of your industry and what you know about the people you lead.

Do the people on your team need to hear you express optimism in order to help get through the next stage of the crisis?

Or do they need to hear realism, knowing that you understand the challenges, and that you will be standing right there with them come thick or thin?

I suppose we're going to find out together--but I think we can at least go so far in answering to say that whichever route you choose, do it knowingly and intentionally. Even if you're not sure whether realism or optimism is called for, at least have a handle on which attitude you're projecting. 

And also, maybe watch as Kirby and Bastian work over the next few months, for a bit more insight into the best approach.