As regular readers will know, I'm convinced that business leaders in every industry should watch and learn from the airlines. In fact, I wrote an e-book about the idea called Flying Business Class, which you can download here for free.
It's not necessarily that airlines like Delta, United, American and Southwest get things right or wrong. Instead, it's that they're in a commodity industry, trying to differentiate themselves from one another, and doing it all under the highest levels of public scrutiny.
They have to explain almost every decision, to a degree that leaders in many other industries simply don't. As a result, it's like getting a new business school case study almost every week.
The latest installment in this ongoing education? It comes from an interview that Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian did with Lester Holt of NBC News last week.
I don't know if Bastian rehearsed his lines ahead of time, but there's a five-word phrase he used -- and frankly, a single word within it -- that I found myself thinking about afterward, and maybe you should, too.
It came in the context of Bastian's acknowledging that business travel remains way down because of the pandemic, but adding that vacation travelers on Delta are starting to fly again.
Here's the exact quote:
As the case counts are coming down ... and the vaccinations are starting to grow, people are ready to reclaim their lives. And, we're seeing bookings pick up. ... They're ready to reclaim that lost period.
It's that phrase in the middle: "People are ready to reclaim their lives."
Earlier this year, I was struck by how optimistic Bastian sounded in the first Delta earnings call of 2021, despite the fact that Delta had lost $9 billion in 2020 -- "the toughest year in Delta's history," as he put it.
I thought of the roughly 90,000 Delta employees he was speaking to, along with investors, other stakeholders -- to say nothing of Delta's customers -- and about how the CEO of a company like Delta has to walk a fine line, maintaining trust and candor, while also being cheerleader-in-chief.
But I think this seven-word quote goes beyond optimism. It's actually kind of brilliant, especially that word, "reclaim," which he used twice.
I hear a lot of people talking about how they expect their businesses will "recover," or making predictions about when things will "return" to the way they were before the pandemic.
"Reclaim" is a more powerful word than either of those two. We often use it coupled with notions of loss and entitlement: "reclaim what's rightfully yours."
Most of us have, in fact, lost something during the last 12 months of tragedy. Some of us have lost an awful lot. And while it's certainly healthy to try to express gratitude for silver linings, the truth is that we're hurting.
Now, it's payback time. That's the message I hear in that word, "reclaim."
We shouldn't just lick our wounds and try to return to some semblance of the lives before.
Instead, we should live with a vengeance. Do the things we would have done, and then some. Make up for lost time, because we've all had a reminder of just how little time we get.
Look, in practical, financial terms, the return of high numbers of vacation travelers is only a minor blessing for an airline like Delta. Delta makes a lot more money on business travelers, and it will likely take a longer time for them to return.
But as a leading indicator, this notion that people are getting out again, traveling, and aggressively living life is extremely heartening. In fact, it just might be the perfect message for 2021, and one I'd encourage you to think about.
We're not just coming back. We're reclaiming what we lost -- stronger, better, and more robustly than before.
Share that message with your teams -- authentically, vehemently, and often -- and I'll bet you'll see the kind of reactions that make it a lot more likely to come true.
If you liked this column, don't forget the free e-book: Flying Business Class, 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines.