Oscar Munoz
Oscar Munoz advises CU Denver Business School on the importance of authenticity in leadership.

CU Denver Business School launched an exclusive event, “Leadership Takes Flight,” piloted by Oscar Munoz, former CEO of United Airlines. Joelle Martinez, CEO of the Latino Leadership Institute, moderated, providing invaluable insights into Munoz’s remarkable journey, his philosophy on leadership, and what resilience in one’s authentic self can achieve. 

Munoz grew up when conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) were taboo. Born to a single mother who had immigrated from Mexico to Los Angeles, he was raised by his maternal grandmother, bouncing from home to home. Despite the uncertainty, Munoz always knew a door would open for them somewhere.

Munoz spoke about one of his central themes:”proof, not promise.” His family instilled in him the belief that they had to work hard to improve their lives; there were no guarantees. Munoz shared the story of his uncle, who fought tirelessly for the rights of immigrants and unionization in the record-pressing industry in California. 

This “proof, not promise” principle served as a driving force throughout Munoz’s career. He emphasized that rather than resting on promises or assumptions, true leadership requires a willingness to roll up one’s sleeves, get one’s hands dirty, and deliver tangible results. As future business leaders, Munoz encouraged students to embrace this mindset, recognizing that success is not owed to anyone; it must be achieved through determination and a relentless pursuit of excellence.

For much of his career, Munoz felt compelled to conform to workplace norms, suppressing his true self. It wasn’t until his mother’s passing that he realized the importance of authenticity. “We work so hard to project our facades, but it is pointless,” he said.

When Munoz joined United Airlines, the company was in crisis, with stock prices plummeting. However, he saw this as an opportunity. By bringing people together and addressing the disconnect within the organization, Munoz turned the company around. His approach, detailed in his book, emphasizes the importance of listening, learning, and leading.

Just 37 days into his role at United, Munoz suffered a massive heart attack and underwent a heart transplant. This life-altering event reinforced his belief that “leadership is never about you.” Munoz’s experience is a potent reminder that even the most driven individuals are not immune to life’s challenges and that adverse outcomes are inevitable in pursuing greatness. In the face of adversity, he learned the value of resilience, humility, and the support of those around him. His message to students was clear: success should never come at the expense of one’s health or well-being. True leaders must strike a balance, recognizing that their ability to lead and inspire others is intrinsically tied to their own physical and mental wellness.

Munoz cautioned against the overemphasis on traditional mentor-mentee relationships. Instead, he encouraged students to focus on developing themselves and being open to learning from the hundreds of people who can guide their journey.

The “Leadership Takes Flight” event served as a powerful reminder that true leadership is rooted in authenticity, resilience, and a commitment to bringing your best self to any situation. As Munoz said, “Don’t wait until later in life to figure out your strengths and weaknesses.” We can positively impact the world around us by embracing our unique stories and perspectives.

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