Remembering Herb Kelleher

remembering herb kelleher

Herb Kelleher, the man who built Southwest Airlines into one of the most successful American companies, passed away last week.

Kelleher was one of my heroes, a fun-loving, hard-working composite of all the traits that make for a successful entrepreneurvision, perseverance and leadership.

You’ve probably heard the legendary story. In 1967, one of Kelleher’s legal clients, Rollin King, approached him with what seemed an outlandish idea: starting an airline that could fly passengers cheaply within Texas. King believed that Kelleher was just crazy enough to sign on. He was right. By their telling, they sketched out their ideas on a cocktail napkin.

The airline almost didn’t make it off the ground, facing a tidal wave of legal challenges as competitors maneuvered to block the young upstart. But Kelleher never gave up.  After five long years of tortious litigation, Southwest Airlines took off in 1971.

What made it work? Out-of-the-box thinking is too tame an expression. Kelleher threw the box away—low fares, doing away with amenities like food, jettisoning the hub and spoke model, and flying out of lesser known airports. These were all radical ideas.

But what made Kelleher one of the most respected CEOs in the world and kept Southwest on the upswing, was Kelleher’s focus on building a corporate culture centered on success and satisfaction for allone that businesses all over the globe try to emulate.

His leadership philosophy was so simple and so basic that most business leaders at the time never saw it coming:

“Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees and the rest follows from that.”

Kelleher once said leaders from other companies would visit Southwest headquarters in Dallas to learn its secrets. He was amused by their reaction when he revealed how simple it was. “They were interested in how we hired, trained, that sort of thing. 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.”

He understood that front-line personnel can either make you or break you. He got his people to sign on to the program through profit-sharing plans and stock options that made employees feel and act like owners.

And he instilled a spirit of fun. A leather-clad Kelleher once rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle to an employee party. He dressed up as Elvis Presley and settled a business dispute with an arm-wrestling contest.

Above all, Kelleher respected his employees. He loaded baggage, took tickets and anything else involving the day-to-day operations. He has been described by one industry analyst as “the sort of manager who will stay out with a mechanic in some bar until four o’clock in the morning to find out what is going on. And then he will fix whatever is wrong.”

There are so many lessons to be learned from Kelleher: Break the Rules, Be Relentless, Put Employees First, Spend Your Times on Things that Matter, Be Trustworthy, Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously.

Kelleher was the epitome of the can-do entrepreneur. He is now one of my guiding stars.