Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.

Management requires a deep sense of human understanding.

Unless you're running a Silicon Valley company, of course.

An excellent boss has to know when to enforce rules and when to see the real truth of a situation.

This is especially true if, like United Airlines President Scott Kirby, you've tried to force through a bonus scheme that would have prevented most employees from getting any bonus at all. (After an employee outcry, it was hastily withdrawn.)

Still, everyone can learn.

And Kirby may be beginning to show he understands.

United has had it share of turmoils in the first quarter of this year.

So Kirby wrote to employees and offered them a picture of the airline's 2019 so far.

Bad weather meant that two of United's hubs, O'Hare and Denver, were out of action for a combined four days.

Though the airline only has 14 of these planes, Kirby explained -- oh, alright, complained -- that United was now forced to use bigger, more expensive planes on the MAX routes.

And not all seats on these planes have been occupied.

But then Kirby's letter took an interesting turn. He revealed what he thought the airline was doing better than American and Southwest. It was all to do with the grounding of the MAX.

He said: 

The United team went above and beyond to protect the flights that our customers were booked on. Most of our competitors around the world simply canceled all or most of their MAX flights and booked the customers on other flights, which were often days or even a week out from the customers' original flight. 

Naturally, I heard from quite a few business flyers whose plans were completely disrupted by the way some airlines were handling the grounding.

Kirby, though, insists United did better: 

At United, our aircraft routers, with support of Tech Ops and network teams were able to protect our customers' original itineraries by using other aircraft to cover almost all of the MAX flights, including creative solutions like flying 777s and 787s on several MAX routes. That costs us money in the short term, since we obviously can't sell all of those extra last-minute seats, but it was the right thing to do to take care of our customers. 

This seems so intelligent as to actually be human.

Of course, United has far fewer MAX planes than American (24) and Southwest (34).

Still, if I'd been an employee reading this I'd have felt (at least slightly) uplifted. 

But then came this: 

Of course, we can't keep this up forever.

Oh, he was doing so well. Bad news was coming right?

It certainly was: 

We didn't meet our operational performance incentive goals this quarter.

Oh, come on. Are you really going to tell employees they've done far more than some might have expected and then give them some consequential bad news?

Kirby girded his loins:

Ordinarily, this would result in eligible employees not receiving a bonus payment for Q1. But, we worked through truly unique conditions and I believe your outstanding effort deserves extra -- and tangible -- recognition. 

How about that? Actually tangible. And so he declared: 

That's why we will be issuing a one-time $100 employee appreciation payment to all eligible employees on April 17.

Honestly, he was so pleased to do something good that he put that line in bold type.

I find myself admiring the structure of the letter. He didn't give away the best news too early. He melded realism with humanity. 

His PR scriptwriters certainly did a fine job.

Sometimes, a leader has to realize that employees have done the very best they could and deserve some sort of recognition.

Despite the hit to the company's coffers.

It's especially wise in Kirby's position, as employees still view him with suspicion, fearing he cares (a lot) more about numbers than people.

Indeed, a couple of United Flight Attendants I've talked to this week insisted the money meant far more to them than the letter.

This is, though, progress for United and a realization that its employees are its airline.

Even if United can't go on like this -- making slightly less money -- forever, it shows that every business leader can adjust their ways.

And, in many cases, should.

Published on: Apr 14, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.