Life lessons from Alfred Kahn, father of airline deregulation

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“Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie.”

Alfred Kahn’s opening words during an American Bar Association session were strange and confusing. Why would a man known for clarity and strong communication begin a speech this way? To make a point about effective communication.

Kahn had humble beginnings as the son of Jewish-Russian immigrants. His climb began soon after graduating from New York University at 18. He would go on to work for several prominent institutions including Cornell University, as a professor of economics; the New York Public Safety Commission, as president; the Civil Aeronautics Board, as chairman; and the White House, as an economic advisor to President Jimmy Carter.

He was in many of these roles a trailblazer of deregulation who worked to shake things up. Kahn’s strong communication and leadership skills were essential to his success. By understanding Kahn’s use of different leadership styles and effective communication, future leaders in diverse fields can use those same strategies to thrive.

As the president of the New York Public Safety Commission (NYPSC), Kahn developed a plan to reform electricity utility rate structures to reflect its true cost. Previously, the system encouraged an unfair distortion of costs that had some consumers subsidizing others without receiving the same benefits.

The plan faced backlash from commission staff, engineers, and consumers who benefited from the previous system. Kahn created supporters by using his charisma, communication, and teaching skills.

He appealed to the greatest concerns of each group. Using his experience as a professor, Kahn taught staffers about the principle of marginal cost and its application to utility rates. To win over engineers, Kahn showed his expertise in utility management and answered their concerns about the potential consequences of revenue erosion. He was able to convert former critics into supporters by taking the time to educate skeptics about his methods and show them the positive results of his actions.

Utilizing different techniques to appeal to an individual or a group is a vital skill needed to communicate an idea and persuade others to support your cause. Using Kahn’s example at the NYPSC, we learn that by remaining firm in one’s convictions and having the patience to show your opposition the benefits of your idea, one can grow a network of supporters to achieve your goals.

Kahn’s disassembling of the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) showed a different leadership and communication process than what was necessary at the NYPSC. He provides future leaders with lessons about when to effectively communicate ideas to garner support and when to rebuild an organization instead.

As chairman of CAB, Kahn knew that he needed help to make the case for deregulation. He shuffled out the majority of the agency’s staff, who were not sold on his idea of shutting the CAB down, and staffed it up with economists. This wasn’t simply bureaucratic infighting. There was a communications strategy here as well. In new hires, Kahn favored economists over lawyers, who he believed ill-suited to handle the economic crisis in the industry. He wanted to avoid excess legal jargon in board rulings. Kahn wrote to his staffers, “If you cannot explain what you are doing to people in simple English, you are probably doing something wrong,” according to the book Prophets of Regulation.

This simple sentence both describes and offers a solution to the greatest challenge scholars face today: misunderstanding. What Alfred Kahn taught his staff, bluntly, is that no matter how great your ideas are, if the layman cannot understand them then your words are pointless. By using “simple English” you may gain a wider audience and win them over to your ideas.

Whether or not you agree with his legacy, Kahn used his communications skills over a long career to succeed against constant opposition. Readers can still learn from him to pursue greatness.