Leadership Lesson: Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines

“The business of business is people. Yesterday, today and forever.”

My friend and co-author Raj Sisodia included the above quote from Southwest Airlines’ co-founder Herb Kelleher in our book, Everybody Matters. It’s also something Raj shares regularly in his speeches and in every day conversation.

Why? Because, unfortunately, it’s a reminder we in business need every day.

The world lost a Truly Human Leader when Kelleher passed away on Jan. 3. Amongst the many tributes and eulogies, a line from a Forbes article stood out:

Many businesses have tried to figure out the secret to Southwest’s success, made more astonishing by the fact that it’s been in business for 48 years. Kelleher once said leaders from other companies would visit Southwest headquarters in Dallas to learn its secrets. He took a special joy in their reaction when he revealed how simple it was. “They were interested in how we hired, trained, that sort of thing,” Kelleher said. “Then we’d say, ‘Treat your people well and they’ll treat you well,’ and then they’d go home disappointed. It was too simple.”

When it comes to creating and nurturing an inspiring culture, the basics really are so simple. Viewing the people in your organization as if they are someone’s precious child is so easy. Treating them as if they are a person instead of an object by which you accomplish a purpose is so easy. Yet, so many leaders can’t execute that way of thinking in leading in their business or organization.

Herb Kelleher knew the power in these simple ways of thinking:

“Any event that you have in your life that is celebratory in nature or brings grief, you hear from Southwest Airlines,” Kelleher once said. “If you lose a relative, you hear from us. If you’re out sick with a serious illness, you hear from us, and I mean by telephone, by letter, by remembrances from us. If you have a baby, you hear from us. What we’re trying to say to our people is that we value you as a total person, not just between eight and five.”

Remembering the life and legacy of such a storied leader is a good time for all of us to pause and reexamine ourselves. How do we treat the people within our span of care? Do we show them that they are valued as a total person? Are our interactions with them more than just transactional exchanges? Do our actions help that person know that he or she matters?

Kelleher led Southwest Airlines to five decades of financial success, but that won’t be his legacy. It will be the innumerable lives he touched along the way, a path for the rest of us to follow in his wake.

Simple, right?

Truly Human Leadership is found throughout Barry-Wehmiller Companies, where Bob Chapman is Chairman and CEO. A $2+ billion global capital equipment and engineering consulting firm, Barry-Wehmiller’s 11,000 team members are united around a common belief: we can use the power of business to build a better world. Chapman explores that idea in his Wall Street Journal best-selling book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring For Your People Like Family, available from Penguin Random House.

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