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4 Benefits of Letting Servant Leadership Take Off

Greg Foran made the news a few times last year, which isn’t surprising since he is the CEO of Air New Zealand. CEOs routinely find themselves in the news, for good reasons and bad, and that’s especially true when they run high-profile, customer-dependent companies like airlines.

What made these particular news items different is that they weren’t about announcements by the company or Foran’s response to issues involving the airline or the industry. Instead, they were about customers catching him in the act of servant leadership.

During the December holiday travel onslaught, for instance, Foran was seen working the luggage claims area at Auckland Airport. According to an airline spokesperson, he was simply taking part in a program that encouraged employees to volunteer to help during peak travel.

“Hundreds of Air New Zealanders from across our business, including Greg and members of our executive team, have been volunteering to help our teams at Auckland Airport over this busy holiday period,” the spokesperson said at the time. “Teams have been hitting the ground since mid-December and will continue to help out during January.”

Foran has been CEO of Air New Zealand since February 2020, the worst time imaginable to take over as CEO of an airline! No doubt he was quickly overwhelmed with the business side of the business. Yet, he clearly didn’t allow himself to slip into a silo full of spreadsheets and C-suite Zoom meetings.

I suspect his background in the retailing industry — he was CEO of Walmart U.S. from 2014 to 2019 — shaped a customer-centric approach to leadership that’s so evident by his actions, and not just at the baggage carousel. Earlier last year a user on Twitter shared a photograph from an Air New Zealand flight that showed Foran serving water to passengers, something he’s been known to do rather frequently. If Foran’s on the same flight as you, then you just might find him serving you a cup of coffee.

So here’s the question: Is Air New Zealand better off because its CEO helps with luggage and serves passengers on flights?

I can’t predict the future for Air New Zealand, but I am convinced any company is better off when its leaders buck the “big me, little you” culture and adopt practices that reflect the humility that comes with servant leadership.

In this case, Air New Zealand benefits in at least four ways because its CEO:

  • Gains empathy for what other employees experience.
  • Can interact with and learn directly from customers.
  • Sets a positive example, not only for employees but for anyone who sees or learns of his actions.
  • Experiences the joy that comes with helping others.

The duties of a CEO are wide-ranging, and it’s easy to gravitate toward the more monumental decisions involving strategy or finance. Those are important. But every big decision is shaped by thousands of smaller decisions that are shaped by millions of interactions and experiences. Leaders need to make the most of those opportunities by interacting with employees and customers whenever possible.

Next week, when we launch a new season of Off the Rak on LinkedIn Live, my guest will be someone who knows a great deal about this topic — former Starbucks President Howard Behar. I feel certain he’ll have something to say about the value of serving someone a cup of coffee!

Join us live, or watch later. Click “attend” to be reminded.


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