As you may recall from national headlines in February, ten days after a gunman opened fire at an affluent high school in Parkland, Florida, killing seventeen and injuring seventeen others, Delta Air Lines announced on Twitter that they were axing their agreement with the National Rifle Association (NRA) to provide their members with discounted travel.

Delta would join several large rental car, travel, insurance, banking, and hospitality brands -- then corporate partners of the feared lobbying arm of the gun industry -- by fearlessly severing ties with them.

The NRA was swift to respond, accusing the companies that dropped their perks and discounts of "a shameful display of political and civic cowardice." 

Making matters worse for Delta, Georgia politicians (where Delta is based), announced a plan to take away $40 million from Delta in state tax breaks on fuel. (That plan never took place)

So why would Delta take a stand this time? Why now? Was it because they caved in to pressure from the growing #BoycottNRA movement?     

Delta CEO's reason

In June, Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines, came out to address the topic at Fortune's CEO Initiative conference in San Francisco. He said the NRA's "divisive rhetoric" made his decision "crystal clear." Seeing Delta's name in the midst of the polarizing discussion going on was where he drew the line. "We just couldn't be there," he said.

The deciding factor? One word: Values.

"At Delta, our values are everything. It's the culture of the company. It allows us to be who we are," said Bastian.

He added, "I'm not trying to be a politician. I'm not looking to be a social activist. I'm looking to run the best airline on the planet."

Well, he has actually done all three quite well to Delta's advantage. Working demographics are getting younger and increasingly more political and socially conscious.

Leveraging the juggernaut that is social media, Millennials and Generation Z (the generation after Millennials) are coming out and calling for more corporations to act with a conscience and have a social mission.

A piece titled "Dear National Rifle Association: We Won't Let You Win, From, Teenagers," published in March in The New York Times describes Generation Z as the generation who will "not forget the elected officials who turned their backs on their duty to protect children."

Keeping in mind that Gen-Z is now the largest single population segment -- making up 26 percent of the population, according to Nielsen data -- more large corporations are keeping an eye on the increasing influence of this generation.

As they grow up and become business travelers, big name brands aligning themselves with NRA ideologies may be at risk.

Executives like Ed Bastian intuitively know this and are being drawn to the conversation in order to capitalize on social issues for business outcomes. Whether you blame profit as the main motive, Bastian redirects his rhetoric back to values when he issued a statement that read, in part: "Our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale. We are in the process of a review to end group discounts for any group of a politically divisive nature." (Interestingly enough, Bastian didn't even check with his Board before cutting ties with the NRA, and they fully supported him after the fact.)

So far his anti-NRA stance appears to be working. Since standing by their decision to not sell out relative to political interest, and circling the wagons to fiercely defend Delta's values as a matter of business principle, ​Bastian told CNBC's Squawk Box, "I think we gained a lot of fans."

Why now?

Bastian acted on the "values" motif now because the timing is more critical than ever. Sure, he could've detached himself from the politically-divisive NRA years ago (there have been countless school shootings dating back to Columbine). 

Bastian didn't want to be caught on the wrong side of a public issue (and the wrong side of history). What executive of a Fortune 100 company ever wants to be branded as someone supporting the murder of students or putting guns in the hands of elementary-school teachers (whether or not these labels are true)?

To his credit, he is one of a growing number of brilliant human-centered CEOs beginning to sense that they have a large societal role to play with social issues; they are stepping up their leadership game to appeal to the humanity of its customer base and workforce.

In this age of increasing racism, gun violence, sexual harassment, and the gender pay gap, social responsibility makes business sense.

A recent report in Harvard Business Review states, "Companies are beginning to realize that paying attention to the longer term, to the perceptions of their company, and to the social consequences of their products is good business."

The public perception of Delta's brand was in jeopardy with the NRA affiliation after the Florida shooting. It was simply the right time to part ways.

"As part of that, we have a responsibility to our customers, employees, and community partners to do the right thing," said Bastian. 

Delta's core values

Skeptics often chalk up corporate values to meaningless business jargon that sits framed on lobby or conference room walls but never materializes into shared behaviors lived out among the workforce. 

At first glance, Delta's core values don't appear any different than most large companies. The expected virtuous behaviors you'd imagine are present:

  • Honesty: always tell the truth
  • Integrity: always keep your deals
  • Respect: don't hurt anyone
  • Perseverance: try harder than all our competitors -- never give up
  • Servant Leadership: care for our customers, our community and each other

But to ensure that these values pop out of plaques on the wall and are lived out daily in the trenches, Delta created a clear roadmap they call "Rules of the Road," which is critical to safeguarding and promoting their culture -- a step further than most companies are willing to take. 

One rule of the road that sits on top of the list as Delta's primary business guiding principle is something that may generate further discussion in the gun debate: "Put safety first--always."

In my experience training executives to develop great work cultures, values are the bedrock and a strong indicator of high-performing companies. Delta (along with Southwest Airlines) rely on theirs to consistently elevate themselves above their competitors. In turn, they have landed positive ratings on Glassdoor as an employer of choice for several years running, including:

  • 4.2 out of 5 overall rating (2,098 employee reviews)
  • 85 percent of workers recommend Delta to a friend
  • 88 percent approve of Bastian as CEO

Delta also made this year's Fortune "100 Best Companies to Work For", coming in at No. 98.

Bottom line: Values matter, a lot

In closing, let me say that companies that walk the talk of values don't pay lip service to the idea; their employees and leaders wear the values on their sleeves! It's simply a non-negotiable strategy where people are hired, fired, and promoted on those values. 

In the end, you have to admire Ed Bastian. Yes, the NRA stance was political and necessary for Delta to separate itself from a divisive special interest group with an agenda.

And that's the point: Bastian and other conscious CEOs are now stepping in to fill the vacuum of leadership that our politicians have vacated. Bastian acknowledges that, while he's "a bit uncomfortable" talking about non-business issues, more corporate leaders need to speak out against the populist movement raining down fear and anxiety on people's minds. 

Perhaps we can see Bastian's NRA decision as a "moral choice," but a sensitive and socially-conscious business choice nonetheless. A business choice in alignment with his company's stated values and the human sentiments of valued Delta customers and shareholders alike. 

He should know -- it's his company after all.

"I really know the heartbeat of our company, I believe, and when you see something that is so polar opposite to what you believe you're required to speak. And our employees expect us to speak."

So what do you think? Do you buy it? Hit me up on Twitter, I'd love to hear your reaction.