When I lived in Dallas I became a big fan of Southwest Airlines and its then CEO, Herb Kelleher. Mr. Kelleher died earlier this year on January 3, 2019 at the age of 87. I had the good fortune of hearing him speak on two occasions. He became a legend and flew to the beat of a different drum. He had leadership qualities you will not see in other CEOs even those who have enjoyed a great deal of success.
Herb Kelleher is arguably the most transformative figure and character in the history of modern aviation. He is the epitome of the can-do entrepreneurial spirit. T. Boone Pickens
Though originally from New Jersey Mr. Kelleher was all Texan in heart and attitude. He became bigger than life. Kevin and Jackie Freiberg wrote this article on Mr. Kelleher for Forbes citing 20 leadership qualities or reasons why Mr. Kelleher was a most beloved CEO and person.
Below are the 20 qualities or attributes they felt made Mr. Kelleher successful and loved by his employees. If you read the Freiberg’s article we are sure you will come away with the impression that Mr. Kelleher was simply a fine man who truly cared about others. His mission was to make air travel affordable to the masses spreading freedom that comes from mobility.
Leadership Qualities of Herb Kelleher
- Be interested.
- Be approachable.
- Look beyond titles and status.
- Hire for attitude and train for skills.
- Put employees first, customers second.
- Set aside tribalism and office politics.
- Be yourself.
- Be trustworthy.
- Leave your ego at the door.
- Be irreverent.
- Be tough but not mean.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously.
- Spend time on what you value.
- Cultivate a warrior spirit.
- Forget strategic planning.
- Manage in the good times to protect company in the bad times.
- Be decisive, move with speed and agility.
- Culture is the boss.
- Define the business as a cause.
- It’s okay to break the rules.
How many of these qualities do you have? Which ones do you feel are most important? We will not discuss all these qualities but there are five we want to elaborate that we find unique or counter intuitive.
Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills
In most cases attitude is far more important than knowledge or skill. Over the years I have been a part of at least six medical practices and in all those practices we hired individual because they simply had “prior medical experience”. I never understood that.
I would go out to eat and have a fantastic server wait on me and would think, “That’s the type of person we need for our front desk.” Being a front desk person in a medical office is a people-oriented position. You want some one friendly, approachable, understanding, caring, and patient. Now if you can find that person along with medical experience, great. But that doesn’t happen very often.
When my brother graduated from college he took a position with a Big 8 national accounting firm. Here is what they told him. “Forget everything they taught you in college. In six weeks we will teach you everything we want you to know.”
In other words, skills can be taught. You don’t necessarily need all the skills before you start a job. You just have be able to learn them and nearly anyone can learn them. What will separate you from the others is your attitude.
In the book, Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, an entire chapter is devoted to Southwest Airline’s principle of hiring for attitude and training for skill. The book was written by the Freibergs as well.
There are only two positions at Southwest where skill is more important than attitude – the pilots and the mechanics. For all other positions Southwest feels that regardless of you prior background, or in spite of it, they could train you for any position they need to fill – as long as you had a great can-do attitude.
Attitude is everything! Hang out and surround yourself with people with good attitudes. Attitude is contagious and rapidly spreads.
Put Employees First, Customers Second
This premise that the customer is always right is simply wrong. There are some customers and patients you just don’t want. They are too time consuming, and in the end, you can never please them. They are by and large, miserable people. They don’t even like themselves. They are only happy if they are complaining about something. Do business with them once if you have too, but avoid them after that.
Yes, we are supposed to help people, but in the end you can only help people who want your help, and some people just don’t want your help, your service, your product, etc.
We agree with Herb Kelleher on this who said, 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.
Keep your employees happy. They will look forward to coming to work every day, will have a good attitude, and that filters down to customers. One thing the make employees happy is giving them some leeway to make their own decisions regarding how their job should be performed and how to best serve customers (patients).
Who else are you going to be if not yourself? We have a subcategory on this website titled Be the Best You. Don’t try to be like anyone else. You don’t have their personality or skill set to be them. Trying to be them won’t work for you. Be you and become the best you can at being you.
And, allow your employees to be themselves, too. Don’t hire them if you’re afraid they may portray an image you find unacceptable. But once you hire them, let them be themselves. They will better perform their job if they can be who they are.
Southwest Airlines allows its employees to be themselves.
Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
I’m naturally attracted to individuals who look like they enjoy what they do, who look like they are having fun whether they be entertainers, athletes, physicians, coaches, teacher, or landscapers.
What I find interesting is we now have all these professional athletes making millions and they do not look like they are enjoying themselves. Some how sports, which should be fun, has become too much of business. Or, entertainers who are going through the motions – I don’t see too many smiles on many of them. You can see on their face, “I’m tired of singing this song for the 1,000th time.”
We spend a lot of time in our careers. What we each do should be enjoyable. If it’s not, why do it – other than to get a paycheck. Be sure to laugh and be able to poke fun at yourself.
There are times in medicine where it’s hard to find fun and enjoyment when you have people’s lives in your hands. I have had to develop strategies to make medicine as enjoyable as possible.
With rare exception I have found that if I talk to a patient long enough I will find that we share a common interest, a common experience, or know some one in common. Then talking about the commonality becomes enjoyable and brings a smile to our faces.
I have patient who likes coming to me because I don’t talk all medicine. I jokingly told him, “Well, we don’t have to talk medicine at all.” He replied, “Let’s not go that far, how about half the time on medicine and half time on other topics?”
Forget Strategic Planning
This recommendation may seem strange coming from a CEO of a major airline. After all, should you not plan? But, what Southwest Airlines has done is engaged in contingency planning. They make pre-determined decisions. That’s an approach that can apply to individual lives.
The Forbes article and Freiberg’s book on Southwest Airline mentions the term “future scenario generation.” Basically it is a “what if..” philosophy and requires anticipation of the future and planning adequately for each possible scenario or outcome.
For instance, if the price of fuel drops below a certain price, Southwest will buy a predetermined amount of fuel. If they get wind that another airline may pull out of a particular market Southwest will decide if they want to take over any of that airline’s gates and how many.
And, boom! When that airline pulls out of a market, Southwest is up and running those gates in a matter of a day or two. They do not need to convene a meeting of the board of directors to figure out what to do. They already made the decision.
The ability to move quickly to changing environments is critical in business and in life.
What are you planning for in your life? Do you know what you might do if your spouse dies or becomes seriously ill? Do you know what you might do if you lose your job? Do you know what you would do if you unexpectedly receive a large sum of money?
You have to plan for the future. I have patients who are soon retiring from their careers with little idea of what they are going to do next. Not wise.
Sage Advice from Herb Kelleher
Quotes by Herb Kelleher
Because I am unable to perform competently any meaningful function at Southwest Airlines, our employees let me be the CEO. Now that’s funny! You won’t see any other CEO say that.
Anybody who seeks wealth as an end in itself is always going to be disappointed. What you really should be doing is seeking excellence in achievement
The spirit of Southwest Airlines is exuberant, it’s caring, it’s dedicated, it’s diligent. it’s fun, it’s rewarding, it’s a joy.
My suggestion is that if you need someone outside your company to prepare a mission statement for you, then you really don’t know what your mission is , and you probably don’t have one.
We’ve always operated on the thesis that a company can have a personality, that people can be themselves, and be very successful in business at the same time.
Power should be reserved for weightlifting and boats, and leadership really involves responsibility.
Fight hierarchy and bureaucracy as hard as you possibly can. Don’t ever let it become the master, always remember it’s the servant.
I tell my employees that we are in the service business, and it’s incidental that we fly airplanes.
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 DNA.
When I started working on Southwest Airlines, I kid you not, only people flying on business and very wealthy people ever flew. Mr. Kelleher help to democratize the skies.
Incorporate the leadership qualities displayed by Herb Kelleher and you will be successful in business and your personal life.