Here is an excerpt of an article by Herb Kelleher that appeared in Leader to Leader magazine (No. 4 Spring 1997) and then as Chapter 6 in a book, Leader to Leader: Enduring Insights on Leadership co-edited by Frances Hesselbein and Paul M. Cohen, published by Jossey-Bass (1999).
To read the complete article, please click here.
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WHAT’S the secret to building a great organization?
How do you sustain consistent growth, profits, and service in an industry that can literally change overnight? And how do you build a culture of commitment and performance when the notion of loyalty — on the part of customers, employees, and employers – - seems like a quaint anachronism? I can answer basically in two words: be yourself.
That is both a simple and a profoundly difficult goal. It means spending less time benchmarking best practices and more time building an organization in which personality counts as much as quality and reliability. It also means cultivating an ability to embrace paradox.
Southwest Airlines has a reputation as the wild and crazy guy of commercial aviation. Yet in many ways we are the most conservative company in our industry. We have always maintained a strong balance sheet, watched our costs, and paid as much attention to our financial fitness in good times as in bad. That discipline lets us move quickly when opportunities come our way. From 1990 to 1994, for instance, when the airline industry lost $12.5 billion, we were able to buy more planes and enhance our capacity to compete in today’s growing market.
But you can’t just lead by the numbers. We’ve always believed that business can and should be fun. At far too many companies, when you come into the office you put on a mask. You look different, talk different, act different — which is why most business encounters are, at best, bland and impersonal. But we try not to hire people who are humorless, self-centered, or complacent, so when they come to work, we want them, not their corporate clones. They are what makes us different, and in most enterprises, different is better.
Culture Defines Personality
A financial analyst once asked me if I was afraid of losing control of our organization. I told him I’ve never had control and I never wanted it. If you create an environment where the people truly participate, you don’t need control. They know what needs to be done, and they do it. And the more that people will devote themselves to your cause on a voluntary basis, a willing basis, the fewer hierarchs and control mechanisms you need.
We’re not looking for blind obedience. We’re looking for people who on their own initiative want to be doing what they’re doing because they consider it to be a worthy objective. I have always believed that the best leader is the best server. And if you’re a servant, by definition you’re not controlling.
In an organization like ours, you’re also likely to be a step behind the employees. The fact that I cannot possibly know everything that goes on in our operation — and don’t pretend to — is a source of competitive advantage. The freedom, informality, and interplay that people enjoy allow them to act in the best interests of the company. For instance, when our competitors began demanding tens of millions of dollars a year for us to use their travel agents’ reservations systems, I said, forget it; we’ll develop an electronic, ticketless system so travel agents won’t have to hand- write Southwest tickets — and we won’t be held hostage to our competitors’ distribution systems. It turned out that people from several departments had already gotten together, anticipated such a contingency, and begun work on a system, unbeknownst to me or the rest of our officers. That kind of initiative is possible only when people know that our company’s success rests with them, not with me.
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Herb Kelleher, [retired] chairman, president, and CEO of Southwestern Airlines, has been called perhaps the best CEO in America by Fortune magazine. Under his leadership, Southwest has become the most consistently profitable, productive, and cost- efficient carrier in the industry. It has also earned the “Triple Crown” award for best on-time performance, baggage handling, and customer satisfaction for four years running.
For additional information about Kelleher and Southwest Airlines, check out Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success co-authored by Kevin Freiberg and Jackie Freiberg as well as Jody Hoffer Gittell’s The Southwest Airlines Way and Lorraine Grubbs-West’s Lessons in Loyalty: How Southwest Airlines Does It – An Insider’s View.