Every crisis is the ultimate test of each company’s leadership. The current pandemic offers us one of the best lessons in leadership. For free.

The industries which were the hardest hit by the recent crisis — airlines and hospitality — can show us some excellent examples of how leaders navigate those difficult times. Below, I look at two companies in particular: Ryanair and Airbnb.

Ryanair – how to change the downside to your advantage

I was recently listening to Ryanair’s CEO — Michael O’Leary — talking at the Financial Times online conference about the future of airlines and air travel. Ryanair, together with other air careers, was one of the worst-hit companies amid Covid-19. Despite that, O’Leary sounded surprisingly optimistic. Where most people see the downside, he is looking for opportunities. You can argue that it’s his job to sound confident for the sake of his clients, employees, and shareholders. Yet, I still find his message inspiring. It’s easy to fall into prevalent doom and gloom. It’s much harder to see the upside when everything around is falling apart.

Let’s pause for a moment and see what some common facts are and how they can be turned into opportunities from Ryanair’s CEO perspective:

  • “Airlines are bankrupting”. TRUE. But those who survive will have less competition in the future.
  • “People’s incomes will be hit by the economic recession and their demand for flights will be lower”. TRUE. But when people have less money, they tend to look for lower prices. And in this segment of the market, Ryanair still intends to be a leader. Simply, they are relying on their long term strategy again.
  • “There will be massive unemployment and tourism will not recover quickly”. TRUE. But tourism is one of the industries where it’s relatively easy and quick to create jobs. Hence, the governments around the world will be willing to invest more in those industries and support essential infrastructure (e.g. airlines, airports).

I’m not a big fan of Ryanair. And obviously, I don’t know how they will end up. What I am trying to do here is to show how the seemingly negative scenarios can be turned into our advantage. And how some good leaders are already doing it.


Airbnb – a lesson in executing tough decisions

Airbnb was another company hugely affected by COVID-19. Their business stopped overnight. Consequently, they were recently forced to fire 25% of their staff. It’s a terrible situation for the company and its employees. However, the way the company’s leadership approached this decision was exceptional.

Their CEO — Brian Chesky — published three pages memo explaining precisely the background of the decision, their rationale, and how they were executing it. To those being laid off they offered the most generous severance packages they could probably afford. It showed a great deal of transparency and passion for the company from the CEO. It also provided empathy and respect to all the workforce — a clear sign that the company’s leadership care for their people. Those who stay should keep that in mind, in good and bad times.

There is also another lesson from Airbnb’s recent decision. When you faced with uncertainty and problems, the best you can do is go back to the basics. Airbnb was expanding into new lines of business over the last few years. The prospects looked promising until the recent crisis hit. Right now, their main goal is to survive. The easiest way to do so is to stick to what they were doing the best — connecting people with places to stay. Having a clear strategy and purpose creates a strong backbone which you can always resort to in bad times.

That brings me to the question which I have been pondering around for some time — which companies are likely to be the winners in this crisis?

The obvious picks are the companies that are operating in industries that already see rapid growth and will likely continue to do so. However, the less obvious criteria for selecting the winners are the quality of leadership and the company’s culture.

I don’t really know how reality looks like in companies like Ryanair or Airbnb. What I do know is only their messages and attitudes they are showing to the outside world. And those are very inspiring and worth following for others. We are being taught free lessons in leadership — let’s not waste them.