The PeopleCap Playbook

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Herb Kelleher is the Boss.

On a recent trip, I flew Southwest Airlines and read a great article by Matt Crossman in the in-flight magazine eulogizing Herb Kelleher, Southwest’s long tenured and beloved CEO who passed away in January. The article describes Herb’s leadership style and the legendary culture he created at Southwest.

If you follow our blog regularly, you’ll be familiar with our description of culture: “Culture is the boss when the boss is not around.” Herb Kelleher embodied this saying.

Herb’s larger than life personality, sense of humor, and genuine love for people defined Southwest’s culture. And he reinforced that culture in some bold places: Southwest’s ticker symbol is LUV; it’s hub airport in Dallas is called Love Field; and Southwest’s logo is emblazoned with a little heart.

Below, in his own words, Herb’s philosophy, his leadership style and the tenets of Southwest’s culture are the legacy he leaves behind.

  1. “We hire great attitudes and we’ll teach them any functionality they need.”
  2. “Your people come first and if you treat them right, they’ll treat the customer right.”
  3. “What we are looking for first and foremost is a sense of humor.”
  4. “Show [people] that you admire, value, and love them as individuals, not just as ‘producers.’”
  5. “I forgive all personal weaknesses except egomania and pretension.”
  6. “Think small and act small and we’ll get bigger. Think big and act big and we’ll get smaller.”
  7. “Southwest’s essential difference is not machines and ‘things.’ Our essential difference is minds, hearts, spirits, and souls.”
  8. “There is a difference between ‘micromanagement,’ which deprives others of initiative, creativity and growth and “micro-knowledge’ which aids in making excellent leadership decisions.”
  9. “I love battles.”
  10. “A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.”

As our flight prepared for takeoff, the flight attendant said, “Please give a warm welcome and a round of applause for our first time flier, Jake Smith!” At that, the back of the plane – packed with Jake’s college lacrosse team mates erupted with laughter. I’m pretty sure that this wasn’t Jake’s first flight and I’m also pretty sure the flight attendant knew that too. But she was all too happy to facilitate the joke, because sense of humor is a big part of the Southwest culture that Herb helped to create and reinforce. In spirit, Herb is still the boss at Southwest.