The Brilliance of Herb Kelleher

“You know, anger can be a great motivator. For me, this became a cause. I was a crusader freeing Jerusalem from the Saracens.” Herb Kelleher in Inc. magazine, January 1992.

Leafing through the newspaper, scanning the articles, his mind remained fixed on a line he had just read in Fortune magazine… “The greatest obstacle to long-term prosperity at Southwest may be Kelleher’s mortality.”

He simply couldn’t get that out of his head. He had devoted his life to creating, maintaining and safeguarding the company he had always dreamed of. One of the most coveted in the country, not only for its disruptive value proposition, but also because of the sustainability of its incredible profitability in an industry as unforgiving as the airline industry.

Southwest Airlines was the global benchmark in low-cost airlines. Some consider it the first one, but Kelleher clearly recalled the day his partner came back to Dallas after the experience of flying with Pacific Southwest Airlines. “Herb, we need to start a company like that here in Texas.” That’s all it took; they tackled the challenge head-on…

The company never failed to make a profit since its founding. Not even when the major carriers, sensing the potential danger of low-cost competitors, tried to squeeze them out with regulations and legislation, essentially becoming lobbyists. That had drawn his ire, a sense of “crusade” for the common good that defined the culture of Southwest Airlines.

They had survived those early years, solidifying the business in Texas with a simple but powerful strategy that was all about lowering the average cost per passenger to levels that were unthinkable for other companies and implementing strategies that were brilliant, authentic and highly in tune with human sensibilities.

They managed to reduce the average cost without sacrificing one iota of customer satisfaction, which ultimately made flying Southwest a pretty decent experience. Many years later, Kelleher would say he had created a culture of excellence in customer service, based on taking great care of employees. The service-profit chain caught the attention of some academics at Harvard Business School who I learned from while doing my Ph.D.

“The greatest obstacle to long-term prosperity at Southwest may be Kelleher’s mortality…”

Those words were resonating loudly in the mind of the Southwest CEO. Would it end up being just a mirage, the furious creation of its founder that would disappear with his passing? History is full of ideals that fade away, sooner or later, when those who once championed them finally turn their backs. And it’s not just companies; it’s also empires, philosophical systems, ideologies and religions. Would Southwest suffer the same fate?

Kelleher momentarily reflected on the difficulties they had overcome together. And on the selection criteria that had raised some eyebrows… but seemed like common sense to him. Who better than a pilot to recommend a pilot? Who better than a customer to select a cabin crew? Why shouldn’t they rule someone out for being rude to the building’s receptionist prior to the interview? If they didn’t care about signing team players who they could enjoy working with, how could they expect examples of extraordinary service to coworkers and customers?

He fondly recalled the story he had recently heard about an employee who volunteered to take care of a passenger’s pet for a week: he could not board the plane with the animal, so instead of letting the customer miss his flight, he took the pet home and took care of it until the owner returned from his trip…

And he wasn’t worried about the major carriers stepping into the low-cost arena. They would eventually do the math and figure it out. Kelleher had long known that the key to his company’s efficiency (and hence low prices) was the dedication, humility and service-minded nature of its employees— every one of them.

What other company’s pilots helped flight attendants clean the cabin to save time? What incentives could a company really offer if it didn’t take care of its employees at the same time? “Putting employees before customers”… Because if the employees are happy, and regard the company as their second family, how could they not treat customers in the best possible way?

Perhaps this explains why none of their competitors understood why the most unionized company in the industry (89% membership rate) had suffered only one strike in its entire history. The strike lasted only a few hours, right when the company was starting up…

“The greatest obstacle to long-term prosperity at Southwest may be Kelleher’s mortality…”

He refused to believe it. But not because he discredited it. It was his job to create a healthy and aligned company culture, and he was certainly not ashamed of that achievement. But it wasn’t about that, or boasting about the company’s profitability, awards, satisfaction surveys, etc. He did it because he believed there was another way to work: smarter and fairer. Because he believed professionalism was not incompatible with kindness and enjoyment in the workplace. And ultimately because he understood that this way of working was more human, and therefore desirable to everyone.

“People are the most important part of a business.” He had repeated these words ad infinitum at conferences and business seminars. And he had always lived by that philosophy, from the beginning, which led to more hits than misses.

The greatest obstacle to long-term prosperity at Southwest may be Kelleher’s mortality…”

The day after his death, amid an environment of general strikes at the major US airlines, the same unions that had organized the strikes took out a full-page ad in national newspapers. It was a brief thank-you letter to Herb Kelleher, the man who had taken such great delight in knowing that people enjoyed working for his company. They were hoping, perhaps even more than Kelleher himself, that people at other companies could work increasingly more like Southwest; quite often piecework, for sure… but with a clear sense of service, and a level of respect and attentiveness toward employees that they deserved, for who they were: human beings, with a greater calling.

That combination of intelligence and human sensibility made Herb an example worthy of imitation. As were his efforts to develop a culture through which to keep reinforcing healthy behaviors in managers and employees.