People First Leadership: Remembering Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines

photography of airplane during sunrise

Photo by Anugrah Lohiya on Pexels.com

This past week, Southwest Airlines Founder and Chairman Emeritus Herbert D. Kelleher passed away today at the age of 87.

Kelleher left quite an impression on both the airline industry and on those who worked with him. One of Southwest Airline’s achievements has been 46 years of consecutive profitability due to its approach to steady and responsible growth on behalf of its employees and customers.

The drive for Kelleher and Southwest was not merely financial. It was about people. The airline is known for its commitment to affordable travel for its customers, friendly customer service, and employee-centered servant leadership practices.

Kelleher’s business vision for the company evidenced his deep commitment to caring for employees. When asked on one occasion what Kelleher’s vision was for the company over the next ten years, he replied, “My vision is to keep Southwest Airlines job-secure for our people.” Through the time of Kelleher’s passing, Southwest Airlines has never been in bankruptcy or had a layoff of employees—an amazing claim for the turbulent airline industry.

In a statement posted on Southwest’s website regarding Kelleher’s passing, current Chairman and CEO, Gary Kelly, noted the following about Kelleher’s people-first approach to life and business:

“He inspired people; he motivated people; he challenged people—and, he kept us laughing all the way. He was an exceptionally gifted man with an enormous heart and love for people—all people. We have been beyond blessed to have him as a part of our lives.”

Kelleher provided a model of servant leadership and valuing people. Mark Strauss and I included a bit about Kelleher’s leadership in our upcoming book. Here’s a look at some of this reflection:

“Although most business executives see the general value of their employees, not all executives prioritize people as individuals. Herb Kelleher sought to do to this at Southwest for people at every level of the organization—whether fellow executives or those in line jobs as baggage handlers and mechanics.

At one of the company’s famous spirit parties, surrounded by hundreds of people circling Herb for attention, [Colleen] Barrett tells the story of Herb intently talking with a Southwest mechanic in worker’s clothes for at least fifteen minutes—a long conversation by CEO standards. Barrett writes:

‘Herb never looked over the guy’s shoulder to see who else might be there, and never diverted his eyes from this man while they were talking. Herb was courteous to everyone who was trying to shove the guy out of his space so that they could fill it, but he gave this man his time. It was clear … that Herb had no hierarchical concerns—he was completely interested in what the Mechanic was trying to tell him.’”

As you think through your own leadership, what cues might you take from Herb Kelleher? Share your thoughts below.

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