Niel Golightly lost his job at Boeing. What are the lessons here?


“She’s pretty and petite … a compulsive perfectionist. She’s about to have a migraine!”

Believe it or not, that’s a direct line from a 1977 advertisement put out by Parke-Davis, the pharmaceutical company.

It appeared in a brochure for ergotamine tartrate tablets. At the time it was apparently OK to say that a combination of estrogen, good looks and a drive for excellence would naturally lead to a nasty headache.

If an ad like that were to appear today, you’d likely see heads rolling at an ad agency or perhaps a consumer boycott.

But times change. Attitudes change. We look back and see such messages as products of a different era and mindset.

Or do we?

Niel Golightly “resigned” last month. He was the chief of corporate communications for aircraft maker Boeing, but he had spent a good chunk of his career in the auto industry, mainly at Ford.

An employee anonymously lodged an ethics complaint against Golightly, citing a 1987 magazine article he wrote, just a decade after that Parke-Davis ad appeared. In it, a 29-year-old Golightly argued that women should not be eligible for combat.

It was a hot debate at the time. Golightly, then a Navy lieutenant, sided with the status quo.

He wrote: “We should ask ourselves not only whether women can physically and mentally perform basic combat functions — shooting a rifle, operating a missile system, loading bombs on a carrier deck — but, as well, whether women and men can adapt emotionally to the socially radical step of fighting side-by-side.”

As he explained in his farewell note to Boeing colleagues, he was wrong then. Painfully wrong.

That didn’t matter to Boeing. It doesn’t need a crisis within its PR department on top of the public relations crisis triggered by those two 737 MAX jetliners that crashed after takeoff.

Former colleagues I spoke with were stunned by the news. Among them was Anne Marie Gattari.

She asks a question that all of us should be asking at a time when a lot of civil discourse over controversial issues has given way to grenade throwing.

“Where is the capacity to understand a point of view made at the time when it was a common point of view?” she asked. She noted that Golightly has renounced his former beliefs and over the years “proved with his work that he does not believe those initial, very young thoughts.”

And how did his thinking change? By airing his opinions and subjecting them to scrutiny.

“The critics of the article at the time were far more convincing to my open mind than its many supporters, leading me to quickly change my view on the issue — faster and more permanently than if I had not exposed myself to the public debate,” he said in his farewell letter.

Those former auto industry peers I spoke with describe him as a first-class human being — one with a firm moral compass and an uncanny ability to treat everyone with respect and dignity.

Gattari recalls her work with Golightly as “one of the very best experiences I ever had with a Ford exec. It was great to watch him climb.”

Andclimb he did. He would later become chief of staff for Bill Ford and spend 12 years at Shell before taking the top communications job at Fiat Chrysler. When the position at Boeing opened, the former Navy pilot jumped at the chance to get back into aviation and help rescue a storied American brand. He lasted six months.

Two weeks ago he reposted on LinkedIn his 2018 essay on the importance of communications chiefs as CEO jobs get tougher.

Business leaders, he said, “are finding themselves shouldering more and more of an urgent public agenda ranging from the global pandemic to racial justice, from climate change to international trade tensions, from educating future workers to protecting the environment.”

Honest leaders who can successfully navigate all that will tell you they didn’t get where they are by being perfect. Their mistakes were as much a driver of excellence as success.

Boeing apparently doesn’t realize that. The rest of us should.

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