July 26, 2016

Jim Whitehurst, former Delta Airlines turnaround CEO and author of The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance addressed our group of more than 600 leaders at the recent Gazelles FORTUNE Scaling Up Summit. Whitehurst shared many great stories and examples, but one point was clear: openness – from transparent leadership to full community participation – is key to success.

Behind the Scenes

During his leadership at Delta in the mid-2000s, Whitehurst brought the company through their bankruptcy. One of his efforts was to engage the people considered to be “behind the scenes.” So often, this group playing supporting roles is overlooked or it’s assumed they don’t need to know. Whitehurst told us he showed up during the overnight shift and met with 150 of Delta’s nighttime staff. Turns out, they had heard about the pending bankruptcy filing and they were craving information. So he explained how bankruptcy works and told them about Delta’s plan.

The Power of Context

Whitehurst shared with us that the power of these people having this context created a profound shift. They went from confusion and frustration to a mindset of asking “what can we do to help?” His response was empowering – Whitehurst told them the best way to help was to do everything in their power to do their job perfectly.

Creating Change

His candor moved them from being, as he described, “thermometers” – those who tell you what’s going on – to “thermostats,” the take-charge personnel who can cause change. Not only did Delta survive the bankruptcy, Whitehurst credits these internal “thermostats” as one of the key reasons Delta moved from dead last to first for on-time performance.

Today, Whitehurst is the CEO of open-source software company, Red Hat, where his leadership has doubled revenue and earned the company one of Forbes’ “World’s Most Innovative Companies” distinctions. Leading in an open-source company is indicative of Whitehurst’s passion for candor and collaboration. Open-source software code is made public and can be freely inspected, copied, modified and enhanced. Whitehurst believes this model drives innovation in business with people, too – and ultimately creates success for everyone.