Though you may have a hard time getting him to agree, there’s no doubt Bob Crandall is a legend in the airline industry. In his 25 years with American Airlines — including terms as chairman, CEO, and president — Crandall transformed the way we travel by launching the first frequent flyer program and revolutionizing the “hub and spoke” system, among other innovations. The 86-year-old is equally esteemed among his fellow alumni thanks in part to the Wharton Graduate Emeritus Society’s “Crandall Challenge,” which recognizes alumni who are at least 45 years post-degree and working to improve society. In a conversation from his Florida home, Crandall reflected on fostering creativity, speaking bluntly, and defining success.

I grew up during the Depression and moved 13 times before I graduated from high school. It introduced me to the notion that you can’t get too attached to what is today. It’s going to be different tomorrow. Have a more flexible attitude toward life.

I learned something from each of my bosses — technical skills from some people, but also about patience, human nature, charity, and forgiveness.

We did a lot of new things at American Airlines. Most of it wasn’t due to my personal creativity and imagination. It was because I was willing to accommodate other people’s ideas and collaborate with people. We created an environment where creativity was rewarded.

Ideas bubble up. If you’ve got 1,000 people thinking about a problem, you’re going to come up with a lot more good ideas than if you only have one or three or 10 people thinking about it. Forget about hierarchy. Just say, “Who’s got a good idea?”

Find meaningful things to read. Not only will you acquire knowledge, but you will acquire the writing, speaking, and vocabulary skills that will take you a long way.

I’m not afraid to say what needs to be said. You need to try to be polite. But being polite is different from avoiding the truth. I think that’s one of my strengths.

Three months ago, I decided to lose 20 pounds. And I did. I stopped eating and drinking as much as I used to and started walking. The first thing I do every day is walk four miles.

If you can’t establish meaningful relationships with people, it doesn’t make any difference how good you are. You’ll never do your best work.

The best book I’ve ever read is These Truths, by Jill Lepore. It’s an apolitical history of the United States. I’ve listened to that book twice. Each time, I learn something new. I’m going to listen a third time.

I learned over the years that if you tell the truth, you never have to wonder when you were telling the truth and when you weren’t.

What’s success? When I started off in life, my goal was to be financially successful. Then I wanted to have a successful marriage and for my children to find their own success. All three have been achieved. Success is how each person defines it for themselves.

I’m very worried about the United States and the welfare of our democracy.

I’m not a religious person, but I’ve always told my children: If you follow the 10 Commandments, you’ll be in good shape. I don’t care where the rules came from — they’re pretty good rules for living a decent life.

I hope people will say that I was a decent human being, that I treated my family properly, and that I was a fair and equitable and creative boss. And I hope people will look at the years that I ran a company and say we were successful.


Published as “Robert L. Crandall WG60” in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of  Wharton Magazine.