A Leader’s Legacy: Lessons from the Late Herb Kelleher

Herb Kelleher

Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines’ affable co-founder, died Thursday, Jan. 3. He was 87.

Kelleher was repeatedly voted the best CEO in the airline industry. Fortune magazine characterized him as “perhaps the best CEO in America.”

Kelleher created a disruptive business model and cultivated a hard-to-replicate culture that business schools tout in case studies and businesses all over the globe attempt to emulate.

He never believed the discipline necessary to run an on-time airline with fantastic service was mutually exclusive with treating people like family and making work fun. He said he would “rather have a company bound by love than a company bound by fear.” Southwest has 46 consecutive years of profitability to show for it.

Forbes magazine named 20 things about Kelleher that made him such a standout. We’ve included our favorites here. See the complete article at FarmEquip.org/Herb.

  • Be Interested. The people of Southwest Airlines had an affection for Kelleher because when he was with them, he was completely engaged. And, he showered the people of Southwest with heartfelt gratitude.  
  • Be Approachable. Kelleher had an uncanny ability to remember names. He told a story about being on an elevator with the CEO of another company who did not acknowledge two employees who got on the elevator with them. When the CEO asked Kelleher how he could create a Southwest-like culture, he responded: “You might start by saying ‘hello’ to your people.”
  • Look Beyond Title And Status. He considered titles and positions insignificant. Years ago, one of his executive officers said, “Herb, it’s harder for me to get in to see you than it is for a mechanic, a pilot, a flight attendant, or a reservations agent.” Half-jokingly, he said, “I can explain that to you very easily, they’re more important than you are!”
  • Hire For Attitude, Train For Skill. Kelleher understood that you cannot build a great company without great people. Once, the vice president of the People Department went to him worried that filling a particular job was taking too long and costing too much. She was somewhat embarrassed that she had interviewed 34 candidates for a ramp agent position. His response: “If you have to interview 134 people to get the right attitude on the ramp in Amarillo, Texas, do it.”
  • Put Employees First, Customers Second. He believed that employees should be treated like customers and celebrated for going above and beyond the call of duty. He explained it like this: “In business school, they’d say, ‘This is a real conundrum: Who comes first, your employees, your shareholders, or your customers?’ My mother taught me that your employees come first. If you treat them well, then they treat the customers well, and that means your customers come back and your shareholders are happy.” 
  • Be Trustworthy. Kelleher cultivated an unprecedented level of trust with his employees and between management and unions. In 1995, he and his team negotiated a historic contract with the pilot’s union. The agreement amounted to a five-year wage freeze for 10-year stock options. 

    During negotiations, Kelleher suggested the pilots were asking for too few stock options. He knew it wouldn’t be as good of a deal for them, and he did not want to take advantage. After the deal had been negotiated, Kelleher went to the pilots and said, “what’s good for you is good for me,” and he froze his wages. 

  • Leave Your Ego At The Door. Kelleher chose to have an office without windows. It sent a message that the team is more important than the individual. 
  • Be Irreverent. Irreverence can promote a healthy level of independent thinking. It encourages people to challenge the status quo, question deeply-held assumptions and not accept things at face value.
  • Forget Strategic Planning. Kelleher believed a plan articulated in a three-ring binder was too bureaucratic. His view was that if you have a strategic plan that has been approved by the board and a window of opportunity opens in the market, you must be able to spring into action. 

    He preferred “future scenario generation,” which means considering all of the possible, ever-changing scenarios that could happen and being prepared for each one. 

  • Manage In The Good Times To Protect The Company In The Bad. Financially, Southwest may be one of the most conservative airlines in the business. Kelleher deplored debt and assured the company never overextended itself. 

    In a media interview, in response to a question about his vision for the airline, he said: “My vision is to keep Southwest Airlines job-secure for our people.”

  • Be Decisive. Move With Speed And Agility. Kelleher believed that endless planning and study is a method of hiding or avoiding risk. He subscribed to the ready, fire, aim approach.
  • Define The Business As A Cause. The people of Southwest believe their work is more than a job. They give ordinary people the freedom to fly and the opportunity to go, see, and do extraordinary things. Kelleher gave them a direct line-of-sight from their daily contributions to a noble, heroic cause. 
  • It’s Okay To Break The Rules. Kelleher questioned the established ways of doing things. He said, “Conventional wisdom put a hell of a lot of airlines out of business.”

He considered Southwest to be in the customer service business first and an airline second. If you’re in the airline business you do what other airlines do. If you’re in the customer service business, you redefine the business by doing what makes sense for the customers you serve.

Source: Forbes