🌀 Herb Kelleher – Leadership Style & Principles In The Spotlight

🌀 Herb Kelleher – Leadership Style & Principles In The Spotlight

🌀 Herb Kelleher – Leadership Style & Principles In The Spotlight

🌀 Herb Kelleher – Leadership Style & Principles In The Spotlight

🌀 Herb Kelleher – Leadership Style & Principles In The Spotlight

Herb Kelleher - Leadership Style and Principles cover

Herb Kelleher Leadership Style & Principles In The Spotlight


Herb Kelleher was repeatedly voted as the best CEO in the airline industry. But how did he achieve that? What are the core principles of his leadership style?

Herb Kelleher created the greatest success story in the history of commercial aviation.

He did it with a disruptive business model and a hard-to-replicate culture that business schools tout in case studies and businesses all over the globe try to emulate.

Southwest Airlines became a beacon on a hill.

ImportantHerb Kelleher and the people of Southwest Airlines showed us that it is possible to love people (employees and customers alike), have fun and make money simultaneously.

Great companies don’t try to be all things to all people. 

Herb Kelleher set the example for what it means to build a great, enduring company that treats people well, and he largely succeeded by defying conventional wisdom.

The core values of Herb Kelleher’s leadership style are based on one simple concept: Be yourself.

And that’s just one of the great lessons and principles leaders can take from Herb Kelleher’s leadership.

If you aim at becoming a great and servant leader, you should take a look at the leadership style of Herb Kelleher. The following core values and principles are part of Herb Kelleher’s leadership style.

Put People First

Southwest Airlines has always been known for treating its employees and its customers well.

First, Herb Kelleher was an incredible listener.

When you were with Herb, he was 100% all there — totally engaged. He made you feel like you were the most important person in the world at that moment, and to him you were.

Southwest Airlines successes are widely attributed to its highly committed and motivated workforce.

ImportantFrom the very beginning, Herb Kelleher fixated on looking after his employees, so they looked after each other and took care of their customers. And, the devoted customers ensured the growth of the business.

As a leader, you have to be genuinely interested in, and like, people.

Show them tolerance, patience, respect, and empathy. Drown them in a tsunami of gratitude for their marvelous works. Show them that you admire, value, and love them as individuals, rather than just as “producers.”

The camaraderie between Herb Kelleher and the employees at Southwest Airlines was remarkable. Many years ago, on Bosses Day, 16,000 employees of Southwest Airlines chipped in to purchase a full-page ad in USA Today to express their affection for the boss.

Herb Kelleher served his people by bringing out the greatness in them.

ImportantHe encouraged and applauded out-of-the-box thinking from everyone at the company, from flight attendants to top-level executives. If a Southwest employee submitted an idea, he or she could expect an answer within a week.

As a great leader you will also look beyond title and status.

WarningHerb Kelleher didn’t see a distinction in class, ethnicity or title when dealing with people. He deplored the class mentality.

Hire For Attitude, Train For Skill

If you’re an altruistic, outgoing person who enjoys serving others, and is team-oriented, you probably have what it takes to work at Southwest Airlines.

Herb Kelleher understood that you can’t build a great company without great people.

ImportantFor Herb Kelleher, recruiting was not about finding people with the right experience — it was about finding people with the right mindsets.

Personality can not be changed, but leadership and management can be taught.

Employees of Southwest Airlines were encouraged to take personality tests that helped to determine what type of fit they would be for the position.

If hiring for attitude seems somewhat subjective, it is. Herb Kelleher made no apologies.

WarningThe reason for an employee’s probationary period is to determine if he or she is compatible with Southwest’s culture. If they don’t fit, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the person; it means they are not a match.

That’s why everyone you interact with at the airline is pleasant and often funny, taking the edge off stressful experiences. You can’t pull this off the other way around — can you imagine an airline trying to hire experienced flight attendants and then training them to be funny?

The business of business is people.

WarningSouthwest Airlines figured out they can train people to fly planes and serve passengers, but they can’t train a good attitude. They hire less than 2% of all applicants. And it is not unusual for a single applicant to be interviewed by over 100 people!

Hire for culture and attitude. Hire tough by spending extravagant time on recruiting.

And weed out non-performers before they do damage.  It will be worth it.

Nurture Your Culture

As we’ve seen, Herb Kelleher created a “culture of commitment” devoted to the happiness of employees. He said that happy associates would lead to happy customers, a differentiator in the airline industry.

As a leader, you’re setting a standard for other people. You should be inspirational.

ImportantAs a leader, you must have excellent core values and be able to communicate those values with frequency and passion. If you don’t communicate what you value, and where you’re going, with passion, why would anyone else choose to go with you?

In addition, Herb Kelleher established a culture of empowerment and collaboration.

A culture where people felt permitted to make decisions and show initiative beyond the scope of their day-to-day responsibilities.

As a leader, you’re setting a standard for other people. You should be inspirational.

This way, employees seem genuinely engaged, which is unique in any company, and they get creative to make it an enjoyable experience.

Herb Kelleher did not practice only the virtues specific to leaders. He also practiced the basic virtues of prudence, courage, and justice, which are the foundation of leadership. He practiced prudence, which is also called the virtue of practical wisdom. His leadership principles, in fact, are full of wisdom.

Continuity, along with empowerment, is a sign of true humility.

ImportantHerb Kelleher multiplied his leadership in others and made it possible for his organization to continue its mission beyond his retirement.

Kelleher did not make himself irreplaceable.

He created the conditions for others to bring his work to a successful conclusion. He paved the way for succession.

Never Give Up

When Southwest Airlines was founded in 1967, the airline had no employees and no jets; it had to gain an operating certificate just to fly.

By turning your business into a cause, you will be able to persevere through some of the darkest days as an entrepreneur.

During tough times, Herb Kelleher was fighting for something more: the right of free enterprise and the ability to open the skies to consumers who couldn’t afford to fly.

Herb Kelleher also practiced the virtue of audacity.

WarningIn 1971, everybody in Texas would tell him that they thought he was crazy to create Southwest Airlines. Herb Kelleher needed boldness to buck popular opinion.

Herb Kelleher was patient and persistent.

There were airline monopolies in Texas which Kelleher consciously sought to destroy for the good of the flying public. The monopolists brought legal action against Herb Kelleher tying him up in 31 judicial and administrative proceedings in an effort to impede competition.

Southwest Airlines never wavers from its core operating strategies: It only flies one type of plane (Boeing 737), going point to point rather than using the traditional hub strategy, without assigning seats. The airline intentionally decided to be bad at convenience and onboard amenities to focus on being on time and inexpensive. 

A leader is someone confident in what he or she is bringing to the table.

WarningAlthough other airlines criticized him, Herb Kelleher was confident in Southwest Airlines, that is why he fought so hard to turn the vision into a reality.

Herb Kelleher knew and had confidence in what he was doing and so should you. 

He understood that the airline industry was for people who worked for corporations and he wanted to expand the market. Trust and believe the world is waiting to see the best you.

Herb KelleherLeadership Style & Principles In The Spotlight

Be an Original

Herb Kelleher understood that a liberated spirit is essential to the kind of imagination and innovation Southwest Airlines seeks from its people.

Irreverence can promote a healthy level of independent thinking.

ImportantIt encourages people to challenge the status quo, question deeply-held assumptions and not accept things at face value.

As a leader, you must give people license to be themselves.

Herb Kelleher’s philosophy was if they want to tell jokes they can. If they want to be creative, they can be. If they want to play pranks on their co-workers they can.

In addition, you must value diversity in organizations.

WarningA multitude of people with the same looks, origins, backgrounds, thoughts, and philosophies will lead you to a harmonious, placid, contented, and self-satisfied organizational end result: disaster.

Herb Kelleher smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, drank Wild Turkey regularly, ate cheese crackers for breakfast, and apologized to no one for who he was.

Ego is the enemy of good leadership.

WarningAn ego-bound leader with no sense of humor can cast a shadow across everyone’s work, whereas a self-effacing leader who engages a genuine, self-deprecating humor can help create an environment in which employees take risks, work as a team, and enjoy themselves more.

Southwest Airlines stands as the paradigm of the power of a lighthearted culture.

ImportantHerb Kelleher was flamboyant and loud by nature. However his humble heart allowed him to treat others as equals.

Final Thoughts

Herb Kelleher - Leadership Style and Principles Final Thoughts
We will hire someone with less experience, less education, and less expertise, than someone who has more of those things and has a rotten attitude. Because we can train people. We can teach people how to lead. We can teach people how to provide customer service. But we can’t change their DNA.Herb Kelleher

Herb Kelleher left a colossal impression not only on the airline industry and on those who worked with him, but also on people-management as a practice.

Herb Kelleher was a true maverick.

ImportantMost notably for us, he showed the world you can have fun and make money too. That’s why we need more Herbs in the world!

You can do really well for yourself by doing good for others.

Herb Kelleher knew that treating employees well creates fans of customers, and thus financial success. It should not come as a surprise that the airline has enjoyed 44 continuous years of profit.

Perseverance always matters.

ImportantKelleher’s legacy not only shows us the power of “thinking around” the corners of a problem, it shows us the extraordinarily motivating power of believing in something — a mission — greater than oneself.

Culture is the boss.

Even with his bigger-than-life personality, Herb Kelleher believed that the culture is infinitely bigger than any one person.

That’s advice every entrepreneur should heed.

Here were five great lessons you should take from Herb Kelleher’s leadership style and legacy. What do you think about it? Do you plan to leverage some of them into your own style of leadership? Do you believe they could make a difference? Let us know in the comments section below!

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