Sunday, January 6, 2019

Farewell, Herb Kelleher

Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, we often flew Southwest Airlines out of New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport.  Such trips usually also involved a visit to my maternal grandparents, lifelong NOLA residents.  My grandpa always referred to Southwest as the “cattle car.”  In reading this past week about the legendary Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s visionary co-founder who passed away on January 3rd, I learned that my grandpa’s moniker wasn’t original.  Nope, grandpa had apparently fallen into step with competitors purportedly responsible for the nickname.  Unfazed, Kelleher, with characteristic playfulness, had responded by offering Southwest customers a free bag to either cover their faces if embarrassed to fly with the airline or to hold all the money they’d save by doing so (clip starts at 1:08)!  With Kelleher, such stunts were commonplace.  He even participated in an arm-wrestling match rather than litigation to determine whether Southwest or Stevens Aviation would be entitled to use of the slogan “Just Plane Smart” (you can find this on YouTube too!). 

Like many readers of this blog, Kelleher was a lawyer (an NYU law school graduate).  In 1966, in a bar in San Antonio, Texas, he and a client, Rollin King, sketched a plan for an upstart airline on a cocktail napkin.  And, as they say, the rest is history. 

I have enjoyed reading stories from among the plethora of tributes written in the past few days about Kelleher because they tell of a brilliant, innovative businessman who worked hard, had a keen sense of fun, produced inimitable quotes (love quotes!), and had a deep respect and care for his employees.  Indeed, USA Today lists “Happy employees (and customers)” as the first of Kelleher’s Five innovations that shaped U.S. aviation.  Given the extensive coverage of Kelleher’s life, I’ll keep this tribute brief, encourage readers to explore the lessons of and practices behind Southwest’s phenomenal success (an airline with “profits for each of the past 45 years in an industry known for boom and bust”), and end with a few of my favorite Kelleher quotes, in addition to a link so that you too can see downtown Dallas lit this past Friday in Southwest’s colors to commemorate this great business pioneer.

We could have made more money if we furloughed people.  But we don’t do that.  And we honor them constantly.  Our people know that if they are sick, we will take care of them.  If there are occasions or grief or joy, we will be there with them.  They know that we value them as people, not just cogs in a machine.

Power should be reserved for weightlifting and boats, and leadership really involves responsibility.

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.

We have a strategic plan – it’s called doing things.

A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.

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Thanks for this post. If you haven't listened to the "How I Built This" podcast on Herb Kelleher and Southwest Airlines, it is worth a listen.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Jan 6, 2019 6:47:36 PM

Thanks, Haskell! I haven't listened to it yet, but look forward to doing so!

Posted by: Colleen Baker | Jan 6, 2019 7:52:17 PM

I had no idea Herb Kelleher was an NYU Law alum. Proud of that. I have always wished that we had Southwest here in Knoxville. I have flown the airline out of other cities. I always supported Kelleher's philosophy of business, which your post nicely outlines.

And "cattle car" is a relatively common descriptor for folks in a certain generation . . . . Just sayin'. (I wish I didn't know that.)

Posted by: joanheminway | Jan 7, 2019 6:15:48 PM

Great piece, Colleen! Wow! There are a LOT of people who could take lessons from this right along about now, if you know what I mean--and I think you do... ;-)

Posted by: Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander | Jan 21, 2019 4:38:48 AM

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