National Leader of the Month for September 2007
LeaderNetwork.org has provided two mediums for you to experience the leadership insights of National Leader of the Month Herb Kelleher: read them below and listen to excerpts from a conversation on leadership between Brian McCormick and Herb Kelleher. To listen to the podcast, copy and paste the following RSS link into your preferred podcast software: http://www.leadernetwork.org/leadership_podcast.rss. In order to begin playing the audio in a separate window, click here .
Honoring Herb Kelleher
Recently, USA Today identified and ranked the 25 most influential
business leaders of the past 25 years. Herb Kelleher, founder and chairman of
Southwest Airlines, is recognized as #5 on that list. The degree of respect for
Mr. Kelleherís leadership becomes clear when considering the names of other
icons who appear after his name on the list: Jack Welch, Oprah Winfrey, Warren
Buffet, Michael Dell, and Howard Schultz.
As the model for success and remarkable leadership, Herb Kelleher has achieved amazing results. Time and again it is Herb Kelleher whose name and story are identified in anecdotes, business lessons, and analogies in corporate meetings and discussions. Many leaders know the platitudes to spout; however, the results that Herb Kelleher has produced demonstrate that he certainly practices what he preaches. And what he preaches is this: take care of your people, take care of your customers, and do it with humility and humor.
Has Herb Kelleher taken care of his people? The high praises that his people offer him would certainly suggest that he has. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that many of his understudies are now successfully implementing the same blueprint that he used to be successful. Has Herb Kelleher taken care of his customers? As judged by the fact that his Southwest Airlines story is one of the most amazing business stories of the last quarter century in America, that answer would seem clear enough. Is Herb Kelleher humble? Spend a few minutes speaking with him, and you will have that answer. It is quite refreshing to listen to the humor and self-deprecation that this remarkable leader exhibits.
For the successes that have resulted from his leadership at Southwest Airlines, the achievements of the leaders he has molded at Southwest, and for the far-reaching influence of his philosophy on leaders all over the world, Herb Kelleher is the National Leader of the Month for September 2007.
About Herb Kelleher
Founder and Chairman of Southwest Airlines
City/country you call home: Dallas and San Antonio, Texas, USA
Birthday: March 12, 1931
Did you always know you were destined for this level of professional success? So
many people cite the example of what you have achieved with Southwest when
talking about both leadership and organizational success. Is that something you
knew was coming years ago when you set out? Oh heavens, no. It was just a
task to be performed to the best of my ability and with a collection of the best
people that I could find to get it underway, and I never looked at success as
being the objective. It was kind of survival from day to day as far as Southwest
Airlines was concerned, and I kept telling our people, ďLook, if you serve
customers internally and externally well every day, success will come. Donít
worry about that as an objective. Just fulfill your daily responsibilities: like
other people, serve other people, be nice to other people, and everything else
will work out for you.Ē Size was never an objective. Excellence wasnít [an]
objective. When you say to like people, serve people, etc.: Are those
things that you could teach peopleóto like and serve people? Or, did
people have to come in to joining your organization with a certain propensity
[for exhibiting those positive character traits]? Or, [did people need to arrive
with] a certain value or belief system to be the sorts of people you could teach
how to [execute] the specifics of liking and serving? I think itís
very important to choose people who have a predisposition to serve others, and
itís hard to be successful if you hire people that are totally self-centered and
bent only on serving themselves, so I think the hiring process is very important
in that respect. On the other hand, I have seen people come to Southwest
Airlines from other organizations that kind of sniff the air a little
suspiciously, wondering whether this is real, and then when they find out that
itís real, they love it. So in other words, their behavior that they have
exhibited in other organizations that theyíve been with previously was really a
behavior created by that organization and its mores, but it wasnít their basic
One of the quotations Iíve read from you is, ďIf youíre crazy enough to do what you love for a living then youíre bound to create a life that matters.Ē A couple of follow-up questions I have for that quote are these: Why have more people not figured this out? Have you always had that figured out, or was there ever a time when you were not doing what you love for a living? It was always pretty easy for me in this sense: that if you really feel that your job in life is to serve other people, then you tend to love what youíre doing. [That is] because you want the outcome to be good for them, whether itís drawing a deed in a law office, trying a case, making soup on the floor of the Campbellís Soup Company, or whatever it might be. Itís easy to love it if you keep your eye on the end objective, which is making it come out well for your clients, or those who are dependent upon youÖ.You want to do it well for somebody else out of an inner sense of excellence and a desire to serveÖThere are a lot of people that kind of shy away from doing the things that they love. Itís kind of like the longshoreman on the West coast that wrote poetry. He decided he loved poetry, he loved philosophy, and he became a noted philosopher, and I think encouraging people to follow their natural bent sometimes makes a great contribution to their lives. Weíve seen a lot of people at Southwest Airlines, for instance, who perhaps werenít performing too well in a given position. Boy, you switch them over to another department--to another function--and they become superstars, which is why I think that people ought to give a certain amount of bent to what they really like doing, because generally speaking, they do that well. That doesnít mean that you should always do things that youíre comfortable with. If youíre going to be a leader, you have to undertake the difficult things (the things that are arduous to do) because you want the organization and the people within it to be successful. Getting back again to the sort of service heart approach, I did practically everything for Southwest Airlines when we started. Nothing was ever beneath me or too miniscule or too difficult for me to undertake because somebody just had to do it to make the organization get off the ground and be successful. A follow-up question is this: itís sometimes easier to serve people when theyíre [likeable people or behave nicely]. Can you talk a little bit about how you go about serving somebody that [you do not particularly like or who may not be as easy to deal with]? Iím not saying that being nice excludes being firm, because I think in many cases you have to be firm with a given person thatís not performing up to snuff. I think the way you handle that is this: First of all, youíre very open in telling them what you consider to be their deficiencies. Number two, you set goals for them with respect to improvement. In many cases, thatís never happened to them before. Itís a first in their lives, and so setting expectations for them gives them an opportunity to fulfill them, and perhaps gives them a better definition of what theyíre supposed to be doing in their job. Another thing is this: I think that the idea of being judicial in your approach, of being non-discriminatory, of being evenhanded, is very important. What I mean by that is that whether you like a person or dislike a person, theyíre entitled to justice within an organization, and so you may not like somebody particularly, but youíre not running around looking for excuses to get rid of them either. When they commit an infraction, a violation of your rules, then they get an opportunity for a fair hearing like everybody else. You eliminate the personal in your approach to people. Focus on the issue is I guess what I am saying.
Another quote that Iíve heard from you is that you at Southwest say that everybody is a leader no matter what their job is. At what point did that philosophy develop from you, and how would you say that compares to the philosophies of other businesses in the U.S. today? Itís really impossible for me to answer how it compares to other businesses because there are hundreds of thousands of them. I havenít visited them, so I donít really have any firsthand knowledge of where they are coming from. But I will tell you this: I realized that everybody was a leader--had to be a leader--in order to have the most effective result very early in my life. A lot of that really stemmed from working on the factory floor at the Campbellís Soup Company for six summers while I was going to school. I would watch people, and no matter what they were doing--whether they were unloading boxes from a truck, whether they were filling cans with soup, whether they were storing boxes of soup in the warehouse--there were some very good leaders that got everybody in their work crew to join [the work] in a really dedicated and enthusiastic fashion. Then I noticed there were some people that were just trying to stay away from [the workers]. They were trying to avoid [the workers], and they were slowing down on the job because they didnít like them.ÖI guess thatís when it came home to me how important leadership is in any position, no matter what it is, because I watched that and I learned from it, and said, ďHey, this is a good leader, this is a mediocre leader, and this is a bad leader.Ē None of those people had management positions.
Favorite quote/attributable to whom? Winston Churchill speaking of the
British people: ďThey are the lions. I am the roar.Ē Why? First, [I have]
admiration for Winston Churchill as a leader. [He was] a valiant, courageous,
and inspiring leader. Secondly, with his tremendous reputation, tremendous
accomplishments, and tremendous success, what he was saying was, ďHey, wait a
second, I was just the front man: it was the people of England that really won
the war.Ē Thatís the way I feel about the people of Southwest Airlines: that I
have been the roar, but itís really their diligence, their good heartedness,
their dedication, and their energy that has made Southwest Airlines successful.
Thatís why itís my favorite quote, because it gives credit where credit is due.
Favorite book/why? Iíve read thousands of books from a multitude of genres. It really is impossible to select just one. I think novels, as an illustration, are frequently a good place to learn things and to expand the reach of your mind, and so I donít have a recommended reading list as such, but I do tell people [this]: read about science, read fiction, read history, just read widely and try to synergize all these things in your own mind, so that they all come together in some meaningful pattern. One of my mentors was Arthur T. Vanderbilt, who was the chief justice of New Jersey in addition to doing many, many other things. He was probably the leading jurist in the United States during his time, and he used to go to Montego Bay in Jamaica every year for one month. And you know what he took with him? He took a trunk of nothing but novels. Fiction novels. He said that was the way he both experienced some recreational relief and also where he got many of his ideas. Thatís why I say that I think that people should get over their tunnel vision with respect to reading, and read about physics, read about biology, read about history--all of those things are meaningful. Novels sometimes give you fantastic ideas: They enhance your emotional intelligence, and they add to your philosophy. That is in keeping with what I said about learning being a continuous process of observation and conversation. [Learning] doesnít have to be classroom-type learning. You should be learning from all the people that you deal with: from watching them, talking to them, getting their ideas, and observing their behavior. When you mention that lifetime commitment to learning, Iím curious to know what your thoughts are; [again], I am kind of asking you to generalize here. How pervasive do you think that philosophy is to people in the United States (the notion of committing oneself to a lifetime of learning)? I really am not sure, again, because, you know, it demands inductive reasoning and I havenít really surveyed the people in the United States, but I have the impression that perhaps thereís more of a feeling today that learning only occurs in connection with classroom instruction and reading textbooks. Perhaps thereís not as much learning from life as there used to be, and that may be attributable to the fact that more people in the American populous are exposed today to classroom learning and textbooks. There are more opportunities for education today, but I donít think it should ever be that narrow. I really believe in the fact that when you graduate from law school and youíve got your law degree, itíll be about five years before you become a really good lawyer. That is because you have to be out there dealing with clients, dealing with other lawyers, dealing with the courts, and getting a pragmatic feel for whatís going on before you really can render the very best advice. [That is how you] learn whatís important and whatís unimportant. Again, I am asking you to comment on something you havenít researched, but could you draw any comparison between the U.S. and any other countries when you talk about this lifetime commitment to learning? I know when I was in China for a very short time a few years ago I was really struck by the hunger that the people I met had for really soaking things up and spending a lot of time with their commitment to learning. Can you talk a little bit about how any other places in the world might address your notion of their commitment to learning? I think Iíve noticed that in Asia, generally speaking, thereís a real devotion to learning, which I think at least in the case of China, probably goes back many thousands of years to the Chinese sages, in effect. It seems to me that the performance of Asians in the United States reflects that because you constantly read articles about them being tops in aptitude tests and leading their fields in various different areas, so I think, it seems to me, that they have an almost reverential respect for learning.
Books you recommend for aspiring leaders: Intellectual curiosity is important, so I would encourage leaders to read many books from many different fields.
Current personal passion: reading and airplanes
Your dream: Job security for Southwestís People for at least another 36 years. Why 36 years? I saw your question in that respect, and I chuckled to myself because it does seem rather aberrational, doesnít it, talking about 36 years? I was simply doubling [Southwestís] present period of job security. As of 2007 weíve had total job security for 36 years as of this year, and I was saying, well, I hope we can go on twice as long. Thatís the reason I picked 36 years. I really want it to be 150 years or more. But that may be beyond my reach.
Place in the world you would most like to visit: China
What experiences have been vital to your development? All of them; learning from life should be continuous.
What have been the turning points in your life? college, law school, and moving to Texas
Your most admired leader (living or deceased) and why? Winston Churchill. He
rallied Britain to victory against great odds, and he was a great writer and
What would you consider to be some of the leadership highlights of your life? I was my high school student body president; I was the college student body president; and, I was the founder, CEO and executive chairman of Southwest Airlines.
Have the limits of your leadership been challenged or tested? Sure, they were tested hundreds of times. How do you respond? Work until you win.
Describe an important piece of advice that you have been given. Donít ever give up. Do you remember who gave you that advice, or is there a story that illustrates when you had to put that into action? I think it was Winston Churchill. I think Winston Churchill said, ďDonít ever ever ever ever ever give up.Ē And boy, he was in a situation where it was essential for Britain that they not give up, and they didnít.
Colleen Barrett, the president of Southwest Airlines (and June 2006 Leader of the Month), shares her thoughts on Herb Kelleher: "Herb is the ultimate Servant Leader. He leads by example at all times. He is a mentor, a coach, a business partner, and a friend to all his Employees. He celebrates with his Southwest Family over our successes and he suffers with us over our failures. He encourages us to be the very best we can be, and he works right alongside of us to give help when needed. He 'lives the Southwest Way' (i.e., exhibits a Warrior Spirit, a Servant's Heart, and a Fun-LUVing Attitude) on a daily basis. He is truly 'the wind beneath our wings.'"
Herb Kelleher and Leadership
Your advice to aspiring leaders: Be humble; work harder than anyone else; serve your People. I had read an article regarding humility in which you had talked about your willingness to hire people with less expertise, education, or experience if they possessed a great attitude, and so Iím just wondering, is attitude the first and foremost thing you look for when you hire people at Southwest? Yes it is. It is their values, their integrity, and their dedication to serving others. Thatís primarily what we are looking for. Thatís not to denigrate education, experience, or expertise, because if someone has a good attitude with all the other things, thatís fantastic. But the distinction I was trying to make is that, if you hire a person simply because of experience, education, expertise, and ignore their attitude, you can be making a terrible mistake. It is like the one rotten apple that can spoil the whole barrel, which is why weíre so attentive to that. People have capabilities that far exceed in many, many cases their historic educational attainments, as an example. You take somebody with a good attitude, and they can become a real expert in technology. As a matter of fact, I was congratulated by another company that had met with our technology department some years ago, and they said, ďHerb, your people are just wonderful,Ē and I said, ďWell it might interest you to know that not one of them has a college degree.Ē Which of the threeóhumility, hard work, or service to your peopleówould you say is exhibited most frequently? [Which comes most] naturally to people, and [which of the three] are most people apt to bring [in with them] the first day [when] they walk in the door [to the organization]? Well Iíll tell you, I think this is sort of maybe a little oblique approach to your question, but I think humility is the most important because if you donít have humility then the other two--working hard than anyone else and serving your people--probably wonít happen. I think you have to be humble and not carried away with your own title or position in order to accomplish the other two. So we look for humility in that respect as maybe the progenitor of everything that weíre after. I think humility is also important to learning. If youíre not humble about what you donít know, youíre very unlikely to learn anything because you think you know it all. Youíre very unlikely to work harder than anybody else because you think, ďHey, Iím here, and itís title and position that are important,Ē and you probably think more about serving yourself and your personal ends than you do serving the people that are dependent on you. ÖHumility is many times manifested by a sense of humor and self-deprecation: when people are willing to joke about themselves and their foibles and their mistakes, thatís a pretty good indicator that theyíre the kind of folks we want. When you say people come into your culture and kind of sniff the air, [I assume] that when they see the type of example and leadership that people like yourself have establishedÖ[it makes them] more apt to let their guard down. Thatís absolutely true. Thatís a hundred percent right. Now I will tell you the other side of it. We basically promote from within, and have for a good many years, but when we were starting out and expanding there were certain disciplines we just did not have at Southwest Airlines, and so we had to go outside to get them. What happened in many cases is exactly what I described. You said loosen up, and thatís exactly it. There were other people, however, that felt rather insecure with the fluidity of Southwest Airlines. They were used to a much more command and control type of structure, and they felt uneasy about not having that, and basically the way I would put it is that they would fire themselves. They would just be so uneasy that they would want to leave because they required the security of an immense amount of structure. Thatís not to criticize that. Some people are that way, and some people are the other way. Our culture is so strong that it forces self-selection on people in effect.
What are the traits you consider most important in a
leader? A savantís head and a servantís heart. Is a leader born with the
two, or are they learned? I think itís probably a combination of the two: You
have to be born with at least a latent capability and desire to be a leader, but
sometimes [there are] people who have never thought about [leadership], and
theyíre exposed to it, and they say, ďHey, I like this: I like the
responsibility of it, I like the sense of accomplishment of it.Ē You can also
hone and refine the capabilities of being a leader. There are probably some
people--if theyíre entirely negative about everything--that probably ought to be
bill collectors or something, but I donít think they could be tremendous
leaders. If you start off where youíre negative about life, I donít think you
can be an effective, positive leader. I think that if you have an urge to lead,
you can be taught how to do it better, and we spend a lot of time on doing that
with our people at all different levels of leadership education. When you do
that leadership education, what are some of the things that you teach? Is it
that you have people in your company that are leaders that are teaching others,
or mentoring them, or is it through having them read books? Can you talk a
little bit about some of the things you do to train leaders? We have classes
at various different levels for leadership and for leaders at different stages
of development (people who are about to become a supervisor for the first time
and people who are about to assume some higher position within the
organization). The classes are tailored to what theyíre going to encounter in
their particular job and at their particular level of responsibility, and we
have some basic training classesómanagers in trainingówhere you start out with
people who perhaps arenít managers, but they have a desire to be a manager, and
so we offer courses on how to be a manager and how to be a leader. Weíre really
focused on leadership. They do all sorts of things in those classes including
acting out, instruction, and recommending books for people to read. As a matter
of fact a lot of our senior officers speak to those classes on a regular basis.
We have a director who is a tremendous educator, and he comes in and talks to
our classes. Bill Cunningham used to be the chancellor at the University of
Texas. Bill comes in and talks, and they love it. They love it. Isnít that a
great thing for a director to do? Our directors are very goodÖWhen we have any
kind of company affair in directorsí cities, they always attendÖ.Directorsí
personal participation in that respect is a great exemplar for all of our
What can organizations do to encourage or stifle leaders? To encourage them you must give them entrepreneurial latitude. To stifle them, have bureaucratic exaltation of form over substance. How do you view encouraging or stifling in the current culture and climate of business in the U.S.? It sounds like Southwest has just continued to encourage rather than stifle leaders. I guess I would say that in a lot of respects I think Southwest is rare in that respect. Can you talk a little bit about that? Well there again itís really hard for me to answer because I havenít spent that much time with other businesses. Iíve been spending all my time on Southwest Airlines. From reading that Iíve done, I think that in some cases some businesses perhaps have gotten a little too hierarchical and bureaucratic for their own well-being. I think there was a tendency towards that after the Second World War when we were economically dominant, didnít have a lot of global competition, and [were more] focus[ed] on the inside and organizational issues [rather] than on the outside. [The reason] is the lack of competition [that existed at the time]. I think American business has responded very well to the competition thatís materialized around the globe; I think you will find that part of that is [U.S. companies] becoming less bureaucratic and less hierarchical and flatter and faster in their response time. To kind of sum it up, I have said that I always want Southwest Airlines to have the alacrity of a puma.
What and where are the best training programs that exist for leaders? Entrepreneurial centers. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? I know you have the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas-Austin. Would that be the sort of place that you would recommend leaders attend in terms of getting good training? Yes it would, and I donít want to single that out, as being alone, because there are a number of such centers throughout the United States. My motivation in setting up that center was to hopefully accomplish enough of the things that we have been talking about: to teach people to color outside the lines, to think freely and creatively, to not be afraid to undertake things, and to be unconventional in their thinking. I think the center provides a nice flavor in that respect.
How do you define effective leadership? In other words, what does effective leadership look like? Causing people to willingly and happily coalesce in pursuit of a common and uplifting goal. How does a leader cause that to take place? Well I think first of all you do it by talking. A lot of it has to do with the kind of presentations that you make to your folks (whether theyíre inspiring, which is good, or rather mundane and pedestrian, which is perhaps not so good), and also the example you set for them in your own devotion to the cause. Leadership by example: ďHeís willing to do anything I do and more.Ē [Also], I think associating with your people on a regular basis is very helpful indeed. We have said that if you have to have a suggestion box, it indicates that youíre failing as a leader, because you should be talking to your people often enough that they donít have to put written suggestions in a box. I think thatís very important indeed. You just [need to] respect the worth of everyone in the organization because everyone is superb, can be a superb contributor, and that thereís no person that is beneath you. Thereís no person whoís less important than you are. [It is important that you] create that sense in them that they are important in what they are doing every day. [You must establish that] no matter what their job is, if they donít do it well, theyíre kind of letting everybody else down. ďA Symbol of Freedom,Ē Southwest Airlinesí signature line, was chosen with a focus on the inside world as much as on the outside world. What do I mean by that? Southwest Airlines has brought the freedom to fly to the American public, and we wanted to enable what our people were doing. In other words, when youíre fixing an airplane--putting a bag in the belly bin, greeting passengers at the door, taking reservations at the reservation center--youíre doing something for the good of human kind, the good of society.
[What else can you explain about] leadership? The best leadership is humanistic in nature. Could you elaborate a little bit on that concept? The humanistic aspect of it, I think, traces back to my feeling, and Iíve joked about this [before] when Iíve said that somebody said, ďThe business of business is business.Ē Iím not sure whether it was Calvin Coolidge or Bianca Jagger, because theyíre both kind of skinny, but in reality I think the business of business is people, and thatís basically what Iím saying by taking a humanistic approach. You want to treat people right. You want to treat people respectfully. You want to honor them. You want to give them credit. If you do that, and they trust you, they will respond with a prodigious effort for the well-being of the whole. And thatís really what I meant by humanistic approach: an emphasis on people while using procedures as an example.
Herb Kelleher's Story
Asked to share a story that encapsulates what he is all about, Herb Kelleher offers the following: I was the captain of my high school basketball team. We were well ahead in the last minutes of the game, and I just needed to make one more basket to break the league individual scoring record. I refused to shoot in order to demonstrate that team victory was more important than individual self-aggrandizement. I did break the record AFTER the coach called for a timeout and he and the rest of the team assured me that THEY wanted me to break the individual scoring record.
The follow-up question to his story: Iím wondering if you can talk about your views on the impact of participation on sports teams for our next generation of leaders in America. In other words, is participation in organized sports a good thing, and why do you feel that it is or isnít? First of all, I donít say itís absolutely necessary because I do know lots of great people who have not participated in team sports. So Iím not saying thatís a sine qua non, but what I am saying is that if you have participated in teams sports, the word ďteamĒ kind of gives away what the value of it is. [The reason is that] you have to learn to function as an entity, whether itís an eleven-man football team, a five-man basketball team, or a six-man hockey team. You have to work with everybody else on the team if youíre going to prevail, and thatís what I think is good about team sports. Iíve seen a number of people in team sports who frankly were only concerned about their own performance, so Iím not saying thatís universal by any means, but I do think it gives you the opportunity--particularly if you havenít had it before in some area or another--to learn how to blend in to a team, to make the group (the team) successful.
For More About Herb Kelleher
Learn more about Herb Kelleher at the website for Southwest Airlines.