Herb Kelleher (1931–2019), the larger-than-life cofounder and long-time CEO-chairman of Southwest Airlines, passed away earlier this year. He is celebrated for establishing a people-oriented company culture that any leader would envy.
What started as a doodle scratched on a cocktail napkin (this account has been disputed) changed the face of flying. Herb’s then-revolutionary vision of low-cost air travel boiled the business down to its essentials. The disciplined execution of this strategy broke the mold of the aviation industry, brought the freedom of travel to millions of people, and encouraged successful copycats the world over—from JetBlue to Ryanair, and IndiGo to Air Asia.
Here are some key lessons that Herb (he preferred to be called just that) had to teach.
Companies are built in the image of their founders. Herb was well known for his competitive chutzpah, his extroverted antics, and his knack for unforgettable publicity ploys (e.g. his paper bag commercial or the ‘Malice in Dallas’ arm wrestling contest.) To the flying public, Southwest became a brand infused with the unconventional, flamboyant, free-spirited personality of its boss. That culture will continue to reflect his vision even after he’s gone—the tone he set at Southwest is not unlike those set by Steve Jobs (foresight) at Apple, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (social values) at Ben & Jerry’s, and Walt Disney (teamwork.)
Ego is the enemy of good leadership. Southwest stands as the paradigm of the power of a lighthearted culture. Herb’s stewardship of the well-being of employees started with the ego at the top. At a 1997 testimony before the National Civil Aviation Review Commission, Herb introduced himself saying, “My name is Herb Kelleher. I co-founded Southwest Airlines in 1967. Because I am unable to perform competently any meaningful function at Southwest, our 25,000 Employees let me be CEO. That is one among many reasons why I love the People of Southwest Airlines.” An ego-bound leader with no sense of humor can cast a shadow across everyone’s work, whereas a self-effacing leader who engages a genuine, self-deprecating humor can help create an environment in which employees take risks, work as a team, and enjoy themselves more. “Power should be reserved for weightlifting and boats, and leadership really involves responsibility.”
Focus on your people, they’ll take good care of your customers. Southwest’s successes are widely attributed to its highly committed and motivated workforce. From the very beginning, Herb fixated on looking after his employees, so they looked after each other and took care of their customers. And, the devoted customers ensured the growth of the business. He famously declared,
The business of business is people—yesterday, today and forever. And as among employees, shareholders and customers, we decided that our internal customers, our employees, came first. The synergy in our opinion is simple: Honor, respect, care for, protect and reward your employees—regardless of title or position—and in turn they will treat each other and external customers in a warm, in a caring and in a hospitable way. This causes external customers to return, thus bringing joy to shareholders.
Hire committed people who’ll fit your company’s culture. Under Herb, Southwest pursued job candidates who exemplified three characteristics: “a ‘warrior spirit’ (that is, a desire to excel, act with courage, persevere and innovate); a ‘servant’s heart’ (the ability to put others first, treat everyone with respect and proactively serve customers); and a fun-loving attitude (passion, joy and an aversion to taking oneself too seriously.)”
Hire for attitude, train for skill. For Herb, recruiting was not about finding people with the right experience—it was about finding people with the right mindsets. “We will hire someone with less experience, less education and less expertise, than someone who has more of those things and has a rotten attitude. Because we can train people. We can teach people how to lead. We can teach people how to provide customer service. But we can’t change their DNA.”
Get your employees committed. “We have been successful because we’ve had a simple strategy. Our people have bought into it. Our people fully understand it. We have had to have extreme discipline in not departing from the strategy.” Herb’s magic extended to making employees think like long-term business owners. He once reflected,
We don’t just give people stock options. We have an educational team that goes around and explains to them what stock options are, how they work, the fact that it’s a longer-term investment. From 1990 to 1994, the airline industry as a whole lost $13 billion. Southwest Airlines was profitable during that entire time, but our stock was battered. Eighty-four percent of our employees continued with Southwest Airlines stock during that four-year period. That’s the kind of confidence and faith that you have to engender, so people have a longer-term view, and they’re not trying to outplay the market every day.
Southwest has never been in bankruptcy, nor has it had to layoff or furlong employees—an extraordinary achievement in the turbulent airline industry.
Stay focused on the core mission. During Herb’s era, Southwest never wavered from its core operating strategies. “We basically said to our people, there are three things that we’re interested in. The lowest costs in the industry, the best customer service, a spiritual infusion—because they are the hardest things for your competitors to replicate.” Herb’s low-cost recipe, however, did not expand to pinching on his employees’ earnings during tough times.
Herb’s Idea for Impact: “The business of business is not business. The business of business is people.”
Herb left a colossal impression not only on the airline industry and on those who worked with him, but also on people-management as a practice.
Volumes have been written about Herb’s exemplar of how organizations can be responsibly people-centered. Read Kevin and Jackie Freiberg’s Nuts: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success—it provides an insight into the unique culture and legacy that Herb shaped at Southwest.