HERB KELLEHER died Jan. 3, 2019. You say you’ve never heard of Herb? I’d encourage you to read about him, but I’ll share a bit here.
Herb Kelleher is one of the business professionals I have admired most for close to 30 years. An attorney by training, in 1967 he and two others (a banker and a businessman) created the concept and incorporated the business that eventually became Southwest Airlines. During the early years, Herb primarily handled the legal work associated with a startup, and there were many legal setbacks in the early years. The company’s first plane flew in 1971.
In 1981, after some turmoil at the top, Herb was named the CEO, a position he held for the next 20 years. And what an impact he had on Southwest in those 20 years.
To say Herb was unconventional would be an understatement. If you’ve ever flown Southwest, you know it is not like other airlines. It was built to be different. Consider the flight attendants. Their uniforms are not like their competitors. I’ve flown when the attendants were wearing a Southwest logo-knit shirt, khaki shorts and tennis shoes. And they don’t act like other flight attendants, either. On a memorable flight to Houston years ago, a flight attendant changed the words to reflect our destination, but used “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme song to entertain us amidst the mandatory instructions given prior to takeoff. On another flight, we played a trivia game in which you rang your flight attendant call button if you could, for example, name the seven dwarfs.
The culture of Southwest was different … and that difference was palpable to all. Employees loved working for Herb as he didn’t set himself apart the way many in positions of authority do. He had fun with his employees, remembering names after only speaking with someone for minutes, and was willing to do crazy things at employee meetings. His staff loved him—just check out the accolades from former employees after his death.
So he was a fun-loving, large-living guy who created a positive corporate culture. What about Southwest’s profitability? For most of Herb’s career, Southwest was the only profitable airline, quarter after quarter. If you believe the adage that people vote with their feet, they were running to Southwest.
During Herb’s tenure, the company spent many years in the top spot in terms of safety, on-time performance, customer service and employee turnover rate.
In my early years as a manager, I saw Herb Kelleher as evidence that being different could be a good thing, a really good thing! Real leaders—those who make a difference—are expected to look at the organization through an altered lens. They understand that happy employees beget happy customers. I’m guessing, for example, that wearing tennis shoes and shorts is a bit more comfortable than the dresses and heels—or suits for the men—that employees of other airlines had to wear. And who said that you couldn’t have fun on a flight? In recent years Delta created some video instructions that were fun to watch.
Herb put his stamp on Southwest, creating a workforce that knew Herb had their back. He said, “We’ve never tried to be like other airlines. From the very beginning we told our people, ‘Question it. Challenge it. Remember, decades of convention wisdom has sometimes led the airline industry into huge losses.’” He expected and rewarded creativity. And you saw that creativity when you experienced a Southwest Airlines flight.
Maybe you’re not comfortable doing things differently, but me? I want to be more like Herb.