A CEO the Occupy Movement Can Love

Tweet 62 in my career advice book Success Tweets says, “Your personal brand should be unique to you, but built on integrity.  Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking.”

Last week the CEO of American Airlines did what he considered to be the right thing when everybody was looking.  American filed for bankruptcy early last week.  Late in the week the American CEO Gerard Arpey, a 30-year employee of the airline resigned.  He walked away with no severance package.  An Op Ed piece in the New York Times said…

“He (Mr. Arpey) split with his employer of 30 years out of a belief that bankruptcy was morally wrong, and that he could not, in good conscience, lead an organization that followed this familiar path.”

Several of the large US Airlines — Continental, Delta, Northwest, US Airways, United – have filed for bankruptcy since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978.  In most cases, these airlines used bankruptcy protection to cancel debt, rid themselves of responsibility for employee pensions and negotiate more favorable contracts with their unions.

Mr. Arpey feels that this is a morally bankrupt way to run a business.

“Our bankrupt colleagues all made net profits, good net profits last year, and we didn’t.  And you can mathematically pinpoint that to termination of pensions, termination of retiree medical benefits, changes of work rules, changes in the labor contracts. That puts a lot of pressure on our company, not to be ignored.”

D. Michael Lindsay, the author of the Op Ed piece said…

“I have interviewed hundreds of senior executives for a major academic study on leadership, including six airline C.E.O.’s. Mr. Arpey stood out among the 550 people I talked with not because he believed that business had a moral dimension, but because of his firm conviction that the C.E.O. must carefully attend to those considerations, even if doing so blunts financial success or negates organizational expediency. For him, it is an obligation that goes with the corner office.

“When we discussed the prospect of bankruptcy at American he spoke with an almost defiant tone of the company’s commitment to its employees and holders of its stock and debt. ‘I believe it’s important to the character of the company and its ultimate long-term success to do your very best to honor those commitments,” he said. “It is not good thinking — either at the corporate level or at the personal level — to believe you can simply walk away from your circumstances.’

“Mr. Arpey may be the only airline C.E.O. who regarded bankruptcy not simply as a financial tool, but more important, as a moral failing. In a day and age of outrageous executive compensation and protest movements justifiably angered at the self-serving nature of the 1 percent, it is refreshing to see a C.E.O. leave a position with honor even as he loses a long-fought battle.”

Once can argue that a publicly traded company’s main responsibility is to its shareholders and that filing for bankruptcy protection was in the best interest of American shareholders.  Mr. Arpey takes a bigger view when he asserts that companies have a responsibility to honor their commitments to their employees and holders of company debt.

That’s beside the point here.  But there is a career success point to be found in this situation.  Your personal brand is important.  It’s what you stand for.  It should be built on integrity.  Gerard Arpey resigned a highly paid position as the CEO of American Airlines because of his thought on bankruptcy.  I’m sure he is walking away a wealthy man – but he could have been wealthier if he hadn’t resigned in protest of his board’s decision to declare bankruptcy.  He leaves with his integrity intact.

Most of us won’t have to make decisions in our careers as momentous as Mr. Arpey’s.  But the next time you are faced with an ethical or moral dilemma, I suggest you think about Mr. Arpey’s stand as you consider your options.

The career success coach point here is simple common sense.  As I mention in Tweet 62 in Success Tweets, “Your personal brand should be unique to you, but built on integrity.  Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking.”  At the end of the day, your good name is all that you have.  Gerard Arpey, former CEO of American Airlines resigned his position – without severance – in protest of American’s Board of Directors decision to declare bankruptcy.  You may never be called on to make a decision of such magnitude, but when you are faced with a decision that challenges your sense of right and wrong, remember what Mr. Arpey did.  If you build your personal brand on integrity, there will always be room for you in the career success sweepstakes.

That’s my career advice prompted by American Airlines’ former CEO decision to resign over his board’s decision to file for bankruptcy.  What do you think?  Please leave a comment sharing your thoughts with us.  As always, thanks for reading my daily musings on life and career success.  I value you and I appreciate you.


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  1. Great article on Mr. Arpey’s admirable character.

    However, saying that, “bankruptcy protection was in the best interest of American shareholders,” is incorrect in that AMR common shares are likely to lose all value in the bankruptcy. Only management, and possibly holders of senior debt, win in the bankruptcy.

  2. Thanks for your comment Jonathan:
    You’re probably right about the bankruptcy and shareholders.
    Although, I often hear companies who declare bankruptcy making the claim that the action was in the best interests of shareholders.
    In Mr. Arpey’s case, I was glad to see that he stuck his priniciples when it came to filing for bankruptcy protection.
    His personal brand is intact.
    All the best,

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