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January 2017

Contagious Behavior

Many years ago I served in the U.S. Army during a time where on one side of the world we confronted a Cold War foe, and on the other side of the planet, we were fighting a hot war in Southeast Asia. My first assignment after completing my training was in Germany with a mobile howitzer battalion.

I arranged my leave so that I had time to visit an aunt and uncle in New York City before reporting to my new post. It was a great experience for a young man from a small town in the mountains. I could easily take this entire letter describing those experiences, but this is really about my uncle and how it connects to today. The evening before my flight, we ate dinner at their apartment and afterward my aunt disappeared. She allegedly had to prepare for a meeting the following day.

My uncle was a sometime actor on Broadway, appearing in a number of productions in the 50’s and 60’s such as Brigadoon and others. When he wasn’t acting and singing, he was a voice coach/instructor at the Julliard School. He was also a World War II veteran.

After dinner he and I talked about a number of things; most of which were family related, but then he asked me if my father had talked to me about what to expect in the army. I reminded him that since I had spent two years at a military academy, and participated in ROTC in college, my dad concluded I would figure things out. All he said was “follow orders” and if I found myself on the ground for whatever reason, “to keep my head down”.

My uncle sat quietly for a moment and then he said something that sounded more than a little strange. He looked at me and said, “stupidity kills as many soldiers as die in a battle”. He was quiet a moment longer and then he said that “the word stupid is often used as an insult but I should not confuse the two words”. I am paraphrasing now because it was so many years ago, and I was 20 years old who saw this time as a great adventure.

He said “stupidity is a highly contagious disease that can spread faster than other diseases like smallpox. It can infect the person next to you or leap without rhyme or reason to another group of people”. During my tours of duty I learned first-hand what he meant.

Fast forward to today and I think the stunning missteps by the airline companies in recent weeks is an example of what my uncle was talking about. It began with United Airlines physically assaulting a passenger who refused to give up his seat. He had paid for the seat, had boarded according to instructions, and was sitting in his assigned seat.

Yet, in the end, it wasn’t his seat because the airline told him they were taking it away from him and giving it to someone else. And then the stupidity virus struck. They told him he would have to give it up, and do so on their terms, or be removed from the plane. All of us watched that event spin disastrously out of control.

Within days the same airline pulled another set of passengers off one of their planes in another stunning display of cognitive dissonance; this time involving a couple on the way to their wedding.

My uncle’s words came back to me as I watched news reports about similarly egregious behavior occurring on other airlines. It got to the point that you could not turn on the TV or open your tablet without hearing about another such misstep.

Those of you who read my newsletters on a regular basis know that one of the themes I focus on when writing about ethics and integrity is the importance of matching actions to words. No matter how much a company talks about its compliance program, its ethics policy, or its training initiatives, none of it matters if the actions do not align.

How often have you seen for yourselves instances where the walk does not match the talk? How often have you heard a company talk about it being customer focused, but when their operations are exposed to the light of day, you find their dedication to the customer is more talk than action?

The gap between expectation and execution is widely discussed and many tools and processes are used in an attempt to narrow that gap. However, none of them work when the stupidity virus strikes.

Food for Thought: Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. (Martin Luther King, Jr.)