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Friday, February 18, 2011

"When Pride Still Mattered"





With the press coverage of the Packers' Super Bowl appearance and the coincidental success of the Broadway play "Lombardi" I became curious to find out more about the greatest of all football coaches.  I downloaded a copy of "When Pride Still Mattered" by David Maraniss for my iPad.  The title was attractive to me as well because 33 years ago this week I went to work for Continental Air Lines.  At the time the airline's motto was, "See the difference pride makes."

1958, the year before Giants Assistant Coach Vince Lombardi arrived, the Green Bay Packers have the worst season in the team’s history, winning only one game.  The third head coach in as many years has resigns. The team has not had a winning season in more than three years. 

By 1983 Continental Airlines had changed.  For the next decade it languishes through a series of bankruptcies, shabby labor relations, mergers and consolidations, a pilot strike and numerous inept management teams.  In 1994 Gordon Bethune, a licensed pilot, certified A & P mechanic, veteran and former Boeing executive takes over the controls.

Like the Green Bay Packers before Lombardi, Continental Air Lines before Bethune was a losing team.  These two men would prove to provide their organizations the missing ingredient for success, leadership.

The year before before Lombardi became head coach the Packers had just one win.  He went on to win 5 championships in the next 8 seasons.

At Continental, after two bankruptcies, multiple CEOs and the worst reputation in the airline industry, the first thing Bethune had to do was cancel aircraft orders and convince Boeing to refund their deposits so that the company could make payroll.  Driven by the demand for its award winning service, in 1999 Continental took delivery of more new aircraft from Boeing than the manufacturer had ever delivered to any other airline in a single year.

What does pride look like?  I think it looks a lot like Vince Lombardi and it also looks like Gordon Bethune.

What do the legacies of Vince Lombardi and Gordon Bethune have in common.  Besides being outspoken, passionate, committed and wildly successful, most importantly they knew how to lead.

Vince Lombardi is probably the most widely quoted person ever when it comes to leadership and commitment.  His inspirational monologues have become become the standard by which all motivational orations are measured. Some of my favorites are:

“I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is the moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious”

“The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.”

“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.”

“The measure of who we are is what we do with what we have.”

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

“Some of us will do our jobs well and some will not, but we will be judged by only one thing-the result”


Mr. Bethune's unpretentious phrases are not as famous outside the airline industry, however, no less profound.  A few are suitable for mixed company, and they usually are delivered with wit and wisdom reminiscent of Mark Twain or Will Rogers.  When he first arrived at Continental Bethune was asked about his plan to repair Continental's abysmal reputation, he simply replied, "There are no rearview mirrors in the cockpit."  One of his more flamboyant comments was generated when he tried to broker an alliance with Delta Air Lines in the late 1990's.  It is reported that he compared their senior management team to "a box of rocks".  His analysis was confirmed a few years later when Continental weathered the post 9-11 storm better than any other major airline.  Others including Delta were slow to react and were needlessly forced into bankruptcy despite having far more assets and resources.  Within 3 years Continental had recalled all of its furloughed pilots and reclaimed it pre 911 status as a vibrant and expanding company.  Gordon Bethune was a master of knowing his audience.  He lead through building relationships one co worker at a time.


Coach Lombardi didn't rely on a multitude of complex plays to win championships.  He inspired and empowered his players to perform the basics of blocking and tackling with passion, precision and consistency.  Gordon Bethune didn't depend on explicit and extensive procedures to govern his employees every move.  He gave them the authority and inspiration to just do what they had been trained to do, take care of the customer.  He once led a group of employees to a parking lot to burn policy manuals he thought were oppressive.  "Gordon" was commonly seen in the terminal and on the tarmac joking with employees,  hearing their ideas and listening to their concerns.  On time percentages went up and lost baggage claims plummeted.  Employees who had once been ashamed to work for Continental were now flooding the company store buying "spirit wear".


For Gordon Bethune, the airline industry was just another business like football was just another game for Lombardi.  Coach Lombardi said, "A player has to love the game and believe in his own abilities if he wants to achieve greatness."  Bethune had that same belief in himself and in his employees.  He believed that with leadership his players could win. And win they did.   Continental routinely captured Fortune, Conde Nast and J. D. Powers' highest awards.

Lombardi's career at Green Bay was 9 seasons.  Bethune led Continental for just a decade.  Their accomplishments were remarkable, but even more uncommon because they were achieved in such a short period of time.  They achieved admiration for what they accomplished rather than just receiving respect for the position they occupied.  Coach and Gordon, as they were affectionately referred to, are still revered by all who had the pleasure to have worked or played with them. 

Who will be the next Lombardi or Bethune?  Are there any out there with the courage and commitment to pass up the easy, well traveled road?  There are certainly many groups of employees and teams of players who are desperate for a leader.  Who will accept the challenge and responsibility of leadership?   Will these employees and players be satisfied or will they be handed more memorandums, platitudes and alibis? 

“It is time for us all to stand and cheer for the doer, the achiever -- the one who recognizes the challenges and does something about it.” 

Vincent Thomas Lombardi 
June 11, 1913 - September 3, 1970

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