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Herb Kelleher LeadershipHerb Kelleher Leadership


Herb Kelleher (1931- )


The co-founder and chief executive 1982-2001 of Southwest Airlines (pictured right), who made it into America’s most successful airline with its low prices and great customer service.


Why was he such a great leader?


1. Employees first

Kelleher realized that the key to his airline’s success was the spirit and commitment of his employees.

So he put:

  • employees first.
  • customers second.
  • shareholders third

(because he believed, if you take care of employees, they will take care of the customer and so make profits for shareholders).


2. Motivating and empowering people

Kelleher gave employees the freedom to ‘do the right thing’ for customers through:


a) training

He trained employees well.


b) information

He gave employees all the information they needed


c) recruitment and selection

He recruited the right people (dedicated to change and customers with a sense of fun).


d) a family atmosphere

(with mutual trust and respect between managers and employees)

This was helped by:Herb Kelleher Leadership

  • his no layoffs policy
  • constant two-way communication with employees.

 Pictured right is Kelleher having fun with some employees!


e) motivation and co-operation - by:

  • treating employees with dignity and respect (e.g. no layoffs).
  • emphasizing the airline’s moral purpose (serving people) – he wisely realized that employees are turned on by people not profit.
  • rewards, communication and constant recognition for good work.
  • employee share ownership (encouraging people to suggest cost savings and customer service ideas to boost profits).
  • the Work A Mile programme – people doing somebody else’s job for a day that increased mutual understanding and support.


3. Servant leadership

“The best leader is the best server”, he said, emphasizing his belief that leadership is about serving people (employees and customers).

So he:

  • listened to customers and employees
  • found out what they wanted (e.g. customers preferred low prices to free meals).

His strategy was based on:

Flexible, broad aims to achieve his vision of a customer driven, low price/cost and fun airline.

He didn't have detailed plans that would quickly become obsolete in the airline industry’s rapidly changing environment.

Therefore, his actions resulted from change and integrity (living by his principles).

“You can change your practices, not your principles”, he said.

 Herb Kelleher Leadership

4. Charisma with humility

He was a larger than life character with a great sense of humour 

He once dressed up as Elvis Presley at a company party (pictured right)!

He loved life, and he wanted his employees to have fun, too.

For example, he encouraged his flight attendants to tell jokes and sing hellos and good-byes over the speakers!

His humility added to his appeal. He always:

  • treated people as equals.
  • respected their ideas.
  • accepted that you can always improve, however successful you are.

People mattered much, much more to him than power.

“You should never become infatuated with power”, he said.


5. Revolutionary

He often went in the opposite direction to other airlines. For example:

  • direct selling to customers (bypassing travel agents).
  • providing customers with no free meals. Herb Kelleher Leadership
  • encouraging flight staff to have a fun and relaxed attitude (until 1980 female flight attendants wore hot pants).
  • only buying one aircraft (the Boeing 737, pictured right in 1983) to significantly reduce training and maintenance costs.
  • having a low level of debt (to keep interest payments down and make the airline less vulnerable to bad times, as in 1990-4).


6. Ready to act

He was always ready for every situation, preparing and evaluating the different possible future scenarios facing his airline.

He also made decisions with courage and lightning speed (to grab market opportunities before competitors did).

He won a 3½ year legal battle with his competitors to start flying in 1971.


7. Encouraging creativity

He believed that the airline’s entrepreneurial spirit was vital to its success.

So he got great ideas to lower costs and improve customer service from:

  • customers (particularly from their letters). Herb Kelleher Leadership
  • employees (encouraging them to take the initiative to find new and better ways of doing things).

His down-to-earth charm and constant communication made it easier for people to approach him with improvements (see right).


Key quote on customers

We are not an airline with great customer service. We are a great customer organization that happens to be in the airline business.


Key quote on service-profit chain

Treat your people well and they’ll treat you well.

Don’t ever doubt in the customer service business the importance of people and their attitudes


Key quote on business success

Your spirit is the most powerful thing of all.


 Key quote on objectives

The thing you can’t buy is dedication, devotion, loyalty – feeling you are participating in a cause or a crusade.


 Key quote on human resource management

The business of business is people.


Key quote on management

Manage in good times so that you’re ready for bad times.


Key quote on leadership

The best leader is the best server.


Key quotes on corporate culture

Nothing kills your company’s culture like layoffs.

You can change your practices, not your principles.


A big thank you to...

Two articles by Herb Kelleher have been particularly useful:

The Chairman of the Board Looks Back, Fortune magazine 28/5/2001 (co-written with Katrina Brooker)

A Culture of Commitment, Leader to Leader journal, Spring 1997.


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