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Published: June 1, 2004

 
 

Herb Kelleher: The Thought Leader Interview

S+B: Or too hard.

KELLEHER: Or too hard — because it’s a vast mosaic with thousands of little pieces that you have to keep putting in place every day. It’s not a programmatic thing. It can’t be. It has to come from the heart, not the head. If it’s programmatic, everybody will know that and say, “Hell, they’re not sincere; they don’t really care, they’re just telling us that they care.” It has to be a continuous stream of one-on-one communication, not like you sit down and say, “Boy, communication is pretty important. Let’s really communicate for the next six months and then move on to what’s really significant.” It has to be part of your fabric; it has to be something that you do really as a product of your soul.

I’ll give you an illustration of why this works, if I might. When the industry was deregulated, I sat down with our very, very creative advertising agency, GSD&M, from Austin. (We call them “Greed, Sex, Drugs, and Money.”) They said, “Okay, now we have deregulation, Herb. Airlines can fly wherever they want to. What’s different about Southwest Airlines?” I said, “Our people are different.” That’s where the “Spirit of Southwest” campaign was born. That could have been a huge risk because we were telling the world on television, radio, newspapers that our people are different and they’re better and they’re special and they welcome customers. We ran that campaign for probably six or seven years and never had anybody write in and say, “You’re wrong. Your people are not special.” Which I think demonstrates that they are.

S+B: Is that why Southwest flight attendants sing?

KELLEHER: Southwest flight attendants sing because they want to. We don’t program our flight attendant training to teach people to sing or tell jokes. What we say is, “If that is your basic personality, feel free to go ahead and do it.” We’re not trying to train you to be anything different from what you really are. If singing buoys up your heart, makes you feel good, go ahead and do it. We have tried to say to our people, “You don’t have to put on a mask, you don’t have to be an automaton when you come to work. You can just be yourself.” Wasn’t it Robert Frost who said, “Isn’t it a shame that people’s minds work furiously until they get to work?” Well, that’s because they feel that they become artificial and constrained by the workplace.

S+B: One of your values in the mission statement is humility as a corporation. With all of your wonderful results, is Southwest really humble?

KELLEHER: No question. I constantly have warned our people over the years that, as we became bigger and more successful, our primary potential enemy was ourselves, not our competitors. Getting cocky, getting complacent, thinking that the world was our oyster, disregarding our competitors, both new and old. I think humility is very important in keeping your eye on the carrot, keeping focused outwardly instead of inwardly, and knowing when you have to change. An investor in the airline industry some years ago that I was talking to said, “Southwest Airlines is the most humble and disciplined airline that I deal with.” I said, “The two go together.”

S+B: Why do they go together?

KELLEHER: Because you can’t really be disciplined in what you do unless you are humble and open-minded. Humility breeds open-mindedness — and really, what we try to do is establish a clear and simple set of values that we understand. That simplifies things; that expedites things. It enables the extreme discipline I mentioned in describing our strategy. When an issue comes up, we don’t say we’re going to study it for two and a half years. We just say, “Southwest Airlines doesn’t do that. Maybe somebody else does, but we don’t.” It greatly facilitates the operation of the company.

 
 
 
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