What a Week for Departures: HP’s Hurd, Jet Blue’s Slater and “Jenny” the Office Worker

Posted 08.11.2010

The past five days or so have been chock a block full of spectacular high-profile flameouts from jobs. A multi-million dollar CEO was forced to resign; a flight attendant chose not to wait for the jetway to depart and an office worker named “Jenny” shared her white board based resignation letter with millions when it went viral online. 

As I’m prone to do, I’ve been looking for some leadership lessons in these stories and with the help of an advance copy of the new book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, by the fabulous Bob Sutton (you can read his blog here and  pre-order the book on Amazon), I think there are a couple of important reminders for leaders that thread through these stories.

But first, a recap.
Hurd Last Friday, Hewlett Packard announced that its CEO, Mark Hurd, had resigned after an internal investigation showed that he had submitted false expense reports related to time that he spent with a female marketing consultant to the company. As the New York Times reported, the consultant first filed sexual harassment charges against Hurd. Those were settled but the investigation turned up the expense report issue. Hurd left. (A sidebar note to guys facing sexual harassment charges – if the woman charging you hires Gloria Allred as her attorney, you can be pretty sure it’s not going to end quietly or well.)

Slater Then, of course, we had the fascinating story of Jet Blue flight attendant Stephen Slater pulling the metaphorical rip cord on his 20 year career. As reported in the Washington Post, after being cussed out and hit on the head by an unruly passenger who just had to get her luggage out of the overhead while the plane was taxiing to the gate at JFK, Slater got on the plane’s PA, repeated the vulgarity that the passenger said involving him and his mother, thanked everyone who had acted with dignity and respect during his career, grabbed a beer off the refreshment cart and then opened the back door and slid down the emergency chute.

I can’t stop reading about this story – there are so many layers to it. One is that, until this week, Slater had an exemplary career with Jet Blue. Another is that he was spending most for his days off traveling from New York to California to take care of his mom who is dying from cancer. (Do you think that could possibly have had anything to do with him snapping when the passenger called him an MF?) Layer three is the generally overwhelming support that people commenting on blogs and Facebook have for Slater. If you’ve got an ounce of heart, you’ve got to have some compassion for flight attendants.   Since 9/11, they’ve had their pay cut while their jobs have gotten massively bigger and more stressful.  Finally, the Jet Blue story resonates because just about all of us have had fantasies of going out in a blaze (or slide) of glory like Slater did. As one blog commenter wrote, “I wish I had an emergency slide out of my office.”

That brings us to Jenny who, when she had had it with a boss who was apparently a P-I-G, pig, got out her white board, a digital camera and her computer. Here’s the first picture of Jenny in what is a series of 33 snapshots of her and her white board letting her boss, Spencer, and the other 22 people she worked with, know that she wouldn’t be coming back to work.


Jenny has a gift for getting her point across. The last time I checked, she had 322,838 fans on Facebook.  You can click here to see the whole letter and what her boss meant when he referred to her as a HOPA.  And, this just in, the whole thing was a HOAX arranged by a web site called TheChive.com. (Awesome job, guys.  Totally bought it.) But, hoax or not, the organizers pushed a button that inspired hundreds of thousands of people to friend Jenny on Facebook. Could it be that a lot of folks are putting up with real life Spencers? I think that could be the case. If you have any doubt, go read the reader comments on my recent post, Seven Simple Rules for Creating a Fear Based Culture.

Which, finally, brings me to Bob Sutton and a couple of points he makes in Good Boss, Bad Boss. First, he encourages bosses to remember the toxic tandem – that your team is watching you very closely and that it’s really important that you be aware that they’re watching you. It’s what I call, in The Next Level,  taking a big footprint view of your role. As a leader, you are always on stage. Always. Maybe Mark Hurd forgot about that.  

The other point from Bob that I think comes into play in this week’s stories is do you have their backs? As Bob asks,

“Do you see your job as caring for and protecting your people, and fighting for them when necessary?  Or do you consider it too much trouble to advocate for resources they need or too personally risky to battle idiocy from on high?”

So, what’s it going to take to get some “got your back” support to all of the Stephen Slaters and real life Jennys out there? If you’re a leader or work for someone who either is or thinks they are, what kinds of behaviors would show that the backs are really and truly covered? How about that issue of stage presence? What do smart leaders do to deal with the fact that they are always being watched?