The visual image of United Airlines passenger, Dr. David Dao, dragged off an overbooked plane went viral around the world recently. United’s choice to forcefully manhandle a paying customer was disconcerting and disgraceful. It was the anatomy of tone-deaf leadership.

The shocking optics caused a public relations nightmare for the airline. Instead of coming forward with a sincere apology, United CEO, Oscar Munoz rubbed salt into their wound when he made insensitive post-event statements. The United boss sent an internal communication justifying their security staff’s actions. He also labeled Dr. Dao as “disruptive and belligerent”. Consequently, Munoz exacerbated an already bad situation when his comments were abysmally tone-deaf.

Some of us are musically tone-deaf because we cannot distinguish the difference between musical notes. Bosses show leadership tone deafness when they cannot (or will not) hear or talk about the truths and realities surrounding an important situation.

Protecting Reputation at all Costs

Fear and defensiveness are two reasons why leaders become tone-deaf. Defensiveness makes admitting a mistake or “doing the right thing” almost impossible. When our brains detect a threat, we go into protective mode. To combat becoming defensive, leaders should learn the triggers that cause their defensive emotional reactions.

Fear is another motivational driver. If there’s a perceived inkling of liability, the foreboding attorney’s voice in a leader’s head warns of a possible lawsuit. Telling the truth and taking responsibility takes effort and a clear mind. Good leaders work on both.

Leadership and Attuned Communication

Successful leaders know the people and customers they serve. The best leaders are attuned to the how, when, what and why of their messages. When a serious situation develops, good leaders know a prompt response is a necessity. Even if the response is, “We do not know what happened but we are investigating.”  In the United incident, Munoz started out correctly by addressing the situation right away. He then quickly lost credibility when we sensed his words as biased and insensitive.

Words, Context, and Delivery All Matter

Especially in a crisis, people look to leadership for answers. Their actions and words matter. When a leader’s words are on point, we are open to the message or patient to hear more. On the flip side, we jump to the conclusion that the leader is disconnected and clueless.  Especially when the message is indifferent, insensitive, or self-serving.

Gifted leaders understand the contextual nature of influential communication. They grasp and synthesize the circumstances around a particular setting. Smart leaders astutely adjust their messaging to fit the context of any situation. In the United case, Munoz did not recognize the breadth and depth of what had just happened.

In a crisis, the delivery medium makes a difference. Usually, in-person is better than in writing. Written statements are not as compelling as seeing a leader’s sincerity when he or she delivers in person. Moving words, body language, and emotions can positively connect in ways that are more personal than just text.


It’s inevitable that the United Airlines incident will be replaced by the next newsworthy crisis. Thanks to cell phones and the media, it is certain we will see our next real-time crisis sooner than later.

United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, and Dr. David Dao are forever linked. As this story unfolded, United Airlines’ stock price lost value and they paid Dr. Dao an undisclosed settlement. Thanks to social media, United became a laughingstock and had to deal with a gigantic PR nightmare. All the while, Dr. Dao becomes the symbolic hero of the forsaken airline passenger. Unfortunately, for CEO Munoz, his claim to fame will be his out-of-touch tone-deaf comments and decisions. Hopefully, other leaders will learn valuable lessons from Munoz about what not to do. We’ll wait and see.

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Connie Wedel is a US-based global HR executive, leadership coach, equal rights advocate, global citizen, writer, speaker, and mom. Her background includes working with businesses, leadership, and employees over 6 continents across various industries.

Connie holds an Executive Masters in HR Management from Cornell University. She maintains SPHR, GPHR, SHRM-SCP certifications and teaches Organizational Behavior at the University of California, San Diego., She is periodic contributor Business Insider, Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Ellevate Network.