Leadership at all Levels: Continental Airlines

Leadership at all Levels: Continental Airlines

Last Friday night, I arrived at the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport with my three young daughters. A friend had called me earlier in the day to alert me to bad weather at home in Chicago. After two weeks away from home, I was only slightly discouraged to find out that my flight had been delayed. Traveling alone with kids is never easy, but the girls and I settled in at the gate, shared a smoothie, and waited to see what the evening would bring.

A twenty minute delay turned into an hour. My littlest daughter spilled the remains of the smoothie on the carpet and I approached the nearest gate agent to let her know about the spill. A few minutes later, she came to our seats to talk.

Her name: Brookie Dakake. Brookie is an agent for Continental Airlines, where she has worked for the past 20 years, starting as a junior mechanic.

Before I tell you what Brookie said and did, I want to tell you three things. First: I am using Brookie’s name with her permission. Next: my daughters and I were not flying Continental Airlines. Last: more important and remarkable, Brookie’s shift had ended. She could have walked away, gone home. But she didn’t.

Instead, she stopped to ask me if I needed any help. She gave me information that had not been announced to passengers — that there was a ground stop for all flights going to Chicago/O’Hare. She encouraged me to try to rebook my flights for the next day, something I hadn’t even considered.

Then, Brookie waited with our belongings while I took my daughters to the bathroom, waited while I talked with the agents from my airline about rebooking my flight. When I learned the next flight with four seats available was two days away, I had no idea what to do. Brookie encouraged me to wait it out, and brought blankets and pillows for my yawning daughters. She even showed us a way to make the pillows softer by turning the case inside out.

All of this, when she could have just gone home for the weekend.

According to a letter on a Customer Care comment card signed by Larry Kellner, the Chairman and CEO of Continental Airlines,

The members of the Continental Airlines team have made a strong commitment to becoming the airline industry’s leader in quality customer service… our employees are always expected to deliver the highest level of service possible. They have been authorized to act in your best interest and to solve problems on the spot.

In my opinion, Brookie Dakake exemplifies the quality customer service Mr. Kellner is promising.

Here’s a story about another Continental executive, from Mark Lipton’s book, Guiding Growth: How Vision Keeps Companies on Course:

Gordon Bethune did some brilliant things to get everyone on board with his vision when he took over at Continental Airlines. First, to communicate that people should always be thinking of ways to improve the customer experience, he dumped one of the huge, official rulebooks into a fifty-five-gallon drum, doused it with gasoline, and lit it afire. It was a symbol that screamed out: You run this airline, not a rulebook that prevents you from being creative.

Undoubtedly, the leadership of Gordon Bethune and now Larry Kellner has influenced the success of Continental Airline in achieving its stated goal to provide excellent customer service. However, it takes an entire team of people who share a vision to accomplish it. An organization needs leaders at all levels, people willing to give their whole-hearted effort to the success of their company’s objectives.

Last Friday night in Charlotte, NC, Brookie Dakake’s actions proved that leadership is not just for CEOs; leadership is for anyone who wants to make a difference. Her kindness and helpfulness may seem like a small thing to you. It wasn’t to me. And a thousand small actions by leaders at every level of an organization have a combined effect of making that organization great.

This post was originally published at Mountain State University Leadertalk and is republished here with permission.

About Becky Robinson

I am the owner of Weaving Influence and the leader of the Weaving Influence team. We help authors and thought leaders grow their online influence. I am also a wife and mom of three daughters, and I enjoy running, reading, writing, a good cup of coffee, and dark chocolate.

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What People Are Saying

  • What a pleasant experience and an honor for you to meet such an outstanding individual. Brookie was, without a doubt, a leader in her own right.
    She was also showing great humanity – which is what really great leaders do.
    Glad you and your daughters made it home safely so that you can share this heartwarming story.

  • I’m willing to bet that Brookie doesn’t consider herself a ‘leader’ and gave no thought to the subject when she offered her assistance. She did what felt right to her and what mirrored her company’s beliefs.
    True leadership permeates an entire organization and its people move in and out of the role as circumstances require.

  • MJ and Miki – thanks for your comments.
    Miki, I agree with you whole heartedly that leadership can exist throughout an organization. I think, though, that people are engaged with their company’s beliefs and objectives to varying degrees. Some people just show up for a paycheck while others are truly involved in seeing the organization succeed.
    Brookie may not consider herself a leader, but she is one, truly, with qualities that anyone could admire: humility, kindness, concern for others.

  • Becky, Engagement is a function of culture and management, so if they are “just showing up for the paycheck” look to the so-called leaders in the company for the problem.

  • Becky, Thank you for recognizing Brookie Dakake and Continental Airlines for their excellent customer service.
    It’s an opportunity for celebration. All the people in Brookie’s life can celebrate her actions and their part in them.
    Like Miki, I suspect that Brookie just considered her actions as doing the right thing. Helping you made her feel good.
    She may not have considered herself a leader, but she behaved as a leader. And as Mary Jo said, she was “showing great humanity.” Isn’t she the type of person you want on your team?
    I gather that the management of Continental Airlines empowered Brookie to do what she did. Bully for them. True leaders create environments where people are empowered to engage their know-how to solving problems.
    Let’s not forget though that Brookie didn’t come into this world with a clear understanding of what was the right thing to do and how to do it. She learned that through experience. And that was through interactions and the influences of many people. That list includes Brookie’s management and, just as importantly, her family, friends and the people in her community.
    I am pausing to celebrate all these things coming together to make your journey a little more pleasant. Warm regards, -Steve

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