Steven Slater, Leadership Coach?


By now you’ve read or heard something about Steven Slater, the JetBlue flight attendant who, after an altercation with a passenger, left the plane on an emergency slide at JFK airport on Monday.  (If you haven’t heard anything, or want to read and see more, check out this page.)

If you have seen or heard much you probably have an opinion about what happened, and perhaps even about Slater himself.   Lots has and will be written about the event, but I want to share a different perspective.

Regardless of what you think of Steven Slater’s actions, the reaction to his unique plane exit provides a tremendous leadership lesson for us all. 

Think about it for a second – an employee publicly curses out a customer, steals from the company and puts others at danger (as well as inconveniencing the customers significantly) by his bold escape.  The aftermath causes a PR nightmare for the employer and likely significant costs in the long and short term.

And the employee is hailed as a hero.

As a leader I hope you realize there is something gravely wrong with this picture.

You may have read one of the multiple studies that says a significant number employees at best (and an alarming number at worst) are actively disengaged in their work, openly negative about it and more.

You may not have thought too much about those numbers, or wondered if they were accurate.  As of now, you should have no question.  Everyone who hails Slater as a hero feels, or has felt, that way about their job.

Johnny Paycheck wrote a song years ago – that people have sung ever since – “take this job and shove it.”  Now Slater has created a new wave with his unusual antics.

Here is the important question for you.

What level of disengagement do you have in your organization?

One way to judge that would be ask this question: 

How many of your people are hailing Slater and his actions?

The events of this week prove how far too many people feel about their work.  As leaders, we must listen to this voice, and use it as a stimulus to determine the degree to which this is true in our own organizations.

We must hear this collective voice and take action to change that in our own organizations.  If you are on the journey towards Remarkable Leadership you cannot ignore this voice.

Think, ask, understand and act.

Your organization deserves it, and so does your team.

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  1. says

    Hi Kevin,
    Really appreciated you perspective on the Slater incident, and your comments hopefully opened the eyes of a few managers.

    I’m in Toronto doing the same leadership development work as you, and a few years ago stumbled onto your website. I receive and enjoy your “Remarkable” e-letter, and hope you’ll be flattered to learn that I ‘go to school’ on some of your tactics.

    I made a radical career switch at 48 (I’m 54 now) from managing luxury hotels, to doing leadership development and exec coaching, because I am deeply concerned about the state of the world, and completely convinced that the fastest and most effective way to leverage positive change is through better leadership. It has been a huge struggle to gain credibility in a new field, but am getting solid footing now and growing my business.

    It has been encouraging during the ‘dark hours’ to read your thought and ideas, and see that I’m neither alone nor nuts in my thinking and vision. So a sincere thank you for that.

    Perhaps we’ll meet at a LD convention sometime in the future. Meantime, keep up the great work. You’re not only helping people become better leaders, you’re helping people like me do the same thing!

    Best regards, Michael

  2. Bob Dreyer says

    My comment on “Slater” is if he was so unhappy with his job, then find another job that will make him happier. I think that Americans in this day and age are spoiled, lazy, expect entitlement, and are afraid to work hard to gain anything. Many come to the job and expect to be making high dollar without putting the time in. Many lack loyalty to the company, and statistics show that people move from job to job more often than our parents did. We expect instant gratification, and think that we deserve less. No wonder companys are taking jobs overseas. Slater took a job also where “service” was a role, and interaction with customers was expected. Society has taken a dive, in regards to respecting others, and most people have an “it’s all about me” demeanor. My opinion is Slater is no hero, but an idiot, who should have been thankful to have a job in this poor economy. I heard today on the news, that he wants to return to his job, what a joke. Let someone take his job that sincerely cares about people, the company, and has desire to make a positive difference.

  3. says


    An interesting point you make about popular opinion reflecting the extent of the disengaged element in our workforce. While its easy for us to sit in judgement over “them” and write them off, it is important to hear their voices because to some extent it’s our fault as leaders.

    Are we watching for the signs of disaffection and low morale and being proactive to address them? We should be mindful that it is costly to have the poor performance that results from disengagement (though thankfully perhaps not as great as the extremes in this event) it is also costly to replace people both in terms of recruitment and training costs and lost experience which is the most likely outcome we face when perhaps a more engaging leadership style can make a significant difference and in a lot of cases all the difference.

    From the limited coverage I have seen in the UK, Mr Slater was a long-time employee who looks to have snapped in the face of customer abuse. How may times had he faced that form of abuse? Do any of the airline managers know how much abuse their staff really face or do they only ever hear of the extremes? As leaders we would do well to understand the real world of our employees and especially reports to see more where our risks lie.

    Of course there will always be the terminally disengaged and we can not weed it all out but before we condemn a person who snaps in our workplace lets heed your message:

    “We must hear this collective voice and take action to change that in our own organizations”.


  4. says

    I thought the actions were deplorable and was stunned to see so many people hailing this guy. Even in my home, my wife is celebrating him for getting back at a truculent passenger while I’m explaining to her that there were more viable things he could have done that would have made him look even better.

    These days more and more people are celebrating bad behavior and it’s got to stop at some point. I hope we haven’t gotten to where the acts of civility that others show aren’t seen as being “weak”. If so, then we’re in more trouble than I’ve been led to believe.

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