Leadership Minute Legends: Lessons From Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher
Nearly five years after his passing, let's take a moment to remember one America's most effective, authentic and respectful leaders
Nearly five years ago Herb Kelleher, the charismatic co-founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, passed away at the age of 87. Kelleher is one of the greatest influences on my leadership approach and aspirations, and I often wish I could have met him in person.
The funny thing is, I don’t enjoy flying Southwest. I fly frequently and enjoy the perks many other airlines offer. But even though I’m not Southwest’s target customer, I have always respected how Kelleher built an enduring company by expertly catering to a specific customer base and treating customers and employees alike with kindness and respect.
As leaders, we can always learn from examining the approaches and best practices of the greats. Kelleher is an excellent example. Here are a few lessons I learned from his leadership that all leaders should take to heart.
Treat people well—whether they work for you or buy from you
Oftentimes, leaders make the mistake of following their competitors’ lead when it comes to treatment of customers and employees. Airlines have a particular reputation for copying each other in ways that are not customer centric.
Southwest always bucked this trend under Kelleher. When the airline was first starting out and struggling as competitors undercut their pricing, Southwest doubled down on the customer experience, and they continued to do so for several profitable decades.
My favorite example of Southwest’s approach came from 2015, when Southwest made headlines for how it assisted a passenger named Peggy Uhle whose son had been in a terrible accident. The airline turned a plane around and rerouted Uhle and her luggage so that she could reach her son, who was in a coma. No leader specifically directed the Southwest team to do this—instead, the team instinctively knew it was the right thing to do, because Kelleher had instilled going the extra mile for customers as an ironclad practice at Southwest.
This generosity and respect extended to Southwest’s treatment of employees. Kelleher always maintained a good relationship with Southwest’s union, and that trust is part of why Southwest’s workers never went on strike under his leadership.
Needless to say, treating employees well makes it easier to treat customers well too. If your team is happy, present and engaged, they’re much more likely to show up for customers and clients and go above and beyond for them.
Hire for talent and drive, not experience
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Friday Forward to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.