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Charleston Business

Southwest Airlines Herb Kelleher believed in putting his employees ahead of himself

By Tom Martin

In January, the world lost one of its most inspirational leaders with the passing of Herb Kelleher, the founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines. Kelleher—or Herb as everyone called him, whether they knew him or not—pioneered low-cost air travel with the creation of Southwest in 1971. Since that time, Southwest has been the most consistently profitable airline in the industry, with an unparalleled reputation for amazing customer service. It has grown to be the country’s largest airline as measured by number of passengers carried, with 58,000 employees and 4,000 departures on its busiest days.

Such statistics would be impressive on their own. But Herb Kelleher was known for something even rarer: he was not just a successful businessman, he was a beloved leader. One need only read the flood of tributes that poured in from all over the world at the news of his passing at age 87 to see why. People who worked for him, or flew on his planes, or met his employees, or bumped into him at a conference, were unanimous in their assessment that he was one of the kindest, funniest, most gracious people they had ever met.

I can say the same. I had the privilege of meeting Herb when he was the keynote speaker at a management meeting I was in charge of several years ago. We had heard of his fondness for Wild Turkey bourbon and had sent a bottle to his room as a way of saying thanks. He informed me that while he appreciated the gift, since our meeting was being held in February we had caught him in his “dry” month, his once-a-year return to abstinence. I asked why he did that and he laughed and said, “Just to prove to myself that I can.”

His speech was impressive. He described the key success formula for Southwest Airlines, the fact that they recruited employees who possessed “a warrior spirit, a servant’s heart, and a fun-loving attitude.” These weren’t just words on a plaque, they were an action plan that determined how they recruited, promoted, and retained employees. They set the tone for how Southwest presented itself to customers, made key decisions, and lived the brand promise through no-nonsense actions.

While I remember clearly what Herb said that day, what made the greatest impression on me was his own sense of self. He personified humility, graciousness, and self-effacement. He didn’t describe it that way—he lived it. 

It stood as such a striking contrast to the examples of CEO greed, self-importance, and one-upmanship that are so prevalent today. Business tycoons compete for the grandest home, the biggest yacht, the fastest corporate jet, the rarest painting. Make no mistake, Herb Kelleher was a wealthy man. But when you spent time with him, that wasn’t what he talked about. That clearly didn’t seem to be what he cared about. He was certainly proud of his many personal accomplishments, but he was prouder still of his employees’ accomplishments.

Herb’s example can teach us a great deal about leadership, whether we are a big-league CEO, a small business owner, the manager of a retail store, or even the coach of our child’s soccer team. It starts with putting the team ahead of ourselves. I have seen far too many examples of leaders in all walks of life who are primarily concerned with burnishing their own image, rather than fostering a culture where the credit for success is shared with everyone who contributed. That wasn’t Herb. He spread the joy of Southwest’s fame with those on the flight line, in the call centers, and on the ramp handling baggage on a cold, snowy night.

Herb also had the rare ability of being able to freely laugh at himself. These days, everyone takes themselves so seriously. By contrast, Herb once hid in costume in an overhead baggage compartment on Halloween and then released the latch to the surprise of the startled passengers. No one enjoyed the joke more than Herb. He loved dressing up for Halloween, riding a motorcycle into a management meeting, or suddenly appearing on one of Southwest’s flights passing out peanuts to amused customers.

Though he loved a joke, Herb knew when and how to make serious decisions. He was relentless as a cost cutter, but he focused on lowering costs through operational savings rather than taking it out on his employees. And they loved him for it. When he stepped down as Southwest’s chairman in 2008, the pilots’ union—then in the midst of contract negotiations—took out a full-page ad in USA Today thanking him for all he had done for them.

Herb Kelleher was not a classic role model. He smoked too much, he drank, his language could be colorful. But he loved his customers, he loved his employees, and he loved serving others in a service-driven business. We sure could use a few more Herbs right now.