January 7, 2019 //

Learning from a legend

Just as the calendar turned over this year, we lost a truly great leader…but not his legacy.

Herb Kelleher, co-founder (later CEO and then chairman emeritus) of Southwest Airlines, died at the age of 87 on January 3, 2019, but the unconventional billionaire left behind a wealth of wisdom…and wild stories (or “Herb stories” as they are affectionately called).  The chain-smoking devotee of Wild Turkey with a booming laugh once shimmied in an Elvis Presley jumpsuit for the cover of Texas Monthly magazine.  Or there was the time he wore a bag over his head in a TV advert (after a rival airline suggested travelers should be embarrassed to fly no-frills Southwest), and promised to give the bag to any customer who was too embarrassed to be seen flying on his discount airline.  But perhaps this attorney was most famous (at least in the litigation world) for settling a heated trademark lawsuit with an arm-wrestling contest – now known as “Malice in Dallas”.  (By the way, Kelleher lost the match but was allowed to use the slogan in exchange for a charitable donation and the concession of Southwest’s legal claim to the slogan).

But the most indelible piece of Mr. Kelleher’s legacy is unquestionably related to his leadership.  And it started with one of the most perfectly crafted vision statements in any industry: “Our vision is to become the world’s most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline”…  so clear, concise, memorable, inspirational.

American Airlines CEO Doug Parker and JetBlue Airways Founder David Neeleman cite Kelleher as a mentor to them.  “His style presents the ultimate case study for airlines or any service company whereby if you take care of your people, they will take care of your customers, which will take care of your shareholders,” Parker said in a statement to Valley News on January 5. “That simple yet profound way of leading continues to inspire all of us.”

Mr. Kelleher developed a loyal following at Southwest because he gave his workforce broad latitude and personal attention.   It is said that it would take him ages to walk through an airport — stopping every few feet to share with employees his bottomless trove of anecdotes.  He routinely sent notes to mark events such as birthdays, marriages or deaths. After Southwest’s initial annual profit, Kelleher started the industry’s first employee profit-sharing program.

The following were the key values that Mr. Kelleher spent his career instilling in his employees:

  1. Customer First– Herb Kelleher was famous for putting employees first, which he said led to better customer service. He was often known to preach “As an employee, put your customer first. This will lead to great profit for the company, and could lead to more opportunities for you”.
  2. Be Yourself– People who knew Herb Kelleher knew him to be an authentic He was his own person, and, by example, he encouraged all of his employees to be themselves. He understood the value of employees knowing, and being allowed to exercise, their unique personalities/skills.
  3. Be Humble but Confident– Humility is at the very core of who Herb Kelleher was. He believed you could communicate your value to your employer and promote your skills with humility, just by demonstrating your ability to perform.
  4. Instill love, Not Fear– Herb Kelleher once quipped, “A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.” That is undoubtedly why Southwest Airlines has always had so many loyal employees.

I don’t know if Mr. Kelleher would have referred to himself as an “Agile” leader, but his behavior certainly modeled everything that Agile Leaders strive to embrace and execute.  I believe that his is a legend that will continue to guide and inspire Agile leaders forever.

So…how successful have you been at modeling Mr. Kelleher’s 4 leadership values (listed above)? Which one(s) need a bit more work? How about if you focus on one or more of them as part of your 2019 New Year’s Resolutions?

PLEASE share your thoughts/comments below. Thanks and Happy New Year!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *