Kevin & Jackie Freiberg’s Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success (1996) is a popular tome about the history and culture of Southwest Airlines and the fun-loving antics of its colorful co-founder and CEO Herb Kelleher (see my tribute.)
Despite its Pollyannaish tone and repetitive narratives, Nuts| is a very enjoyable cheerleaders’ account of how an underdog overcame roadblocks and thrived in a competitive industry.
Nuts| focuses on the people-oriented culture that Herb and his secretary Colleen Barrett established based on Herb’s well-known dictum, “The business of business is not business. The business of business is people.” To Herb, Southwest was a cause—never just a company. The Freibergs write,
If there is an overarching reason for Southwest Airlines’ success, it is that the company has spent far more time since 1971 focused on loving people than on the development of new management techniques. The tragedy of our time is that we’ve got it backwards. We’ve learned to love techniques and use people. This is one of the reasons more and more people feel alienated, empty, and dehumanized at work. Many organizations today would be surprised at how much more people would be willing to give of themselves if only they felt loved.
Nuts| is dreadfully out-of-date. Southwest and the airline industry have changed a lot since the mid-90s. Southwest even stopped handing out peanuts to protect passengers from peanut-related allergies.
The miracle at Southwest Airlines could keep on only so long. As long as Herb was the CEO, employees would go the extra mile for the sake of Herb. Until his retirement in 2001, Herb preserved Southwest’s unique cost structure and work rules. Kelleher’s successor, Jim Parker, presided over mounting labor tensions and quit after just three years. CFO Gary Kelly replaced Parker in 2004. Bob Jordan became CEO in 2022.
The going has not been smooth for Kelly. Southwest has become more like the other carriers regarding employee relationships and cost structure. The rehabilitated legacy airlines and a new breed of ultralow cost carriers have chipped away gradually at many of Southwest’s apparent competitive advantages. Yes, customers still rave about Southwest’s friendly staff, unpretentious service, and flexibility in travel planning. However, Southwest hardly ever has the lowest fares on most routes. In fact, Southwest’s average fares have outpaced the industry by 12% since 2009.
Recommendation: Speed-read Nuts! … it’s full of original insights, upbeat stories, and concrete suggestions for principle-centered leadership and how to inspire people to achieve incredible results. Here are the key takeaway lessons:
- Even a little respect goes a long way. Give employees responsibility and entrust them to take that responsibility.
- Set the ground rules—and let employees be creative. “Culture is one of the most precious things a company has, so you must work harder at it than at anything else.”
- Give your employees some skin in the game, and they’ll go the distance. Southwest claims, “We have credibility because we tell people what we’re going to do and then we do it.”
- Empower workers to make decisions at the customer level. Employees who feel they have leeway in their jobs to make the “right decision” depending on circumstances are happier, more confident, and more productive. They’ll even give extra—because they believe their work has special meaning and is not just a job.
- Make sure people feel they can be themselves and have opportunities to express individuality.
- See yourself as a motivator and a positive force. When things go wrong, accentuate the positive and focus on a path to a solution. It’s an approach that employees will admire and want to emulate.
- Build a sense of community. Foster the feeling of a “family” in which employees can count on each other professionally and personally.
- Recognize that employees have lives outside of work. Celebrate every milestone to establish and strengthen relationships. The walls of Southwest’s headquarters are covered with pictures and commemorative plaques of picnics, community service awards, customers’ commendation letters, service employee milestones, and tributes to important cultural events.