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 / Summer 2004 / Issue 35(originally published by Booz & Company)


Herb Kelleher: The Thought Leader Interview

For example, we bought Morris Air. They were a Salt Lake City carrier with only about 14 or 16 airplanes. We were much larger. When we paid a visit to their headquarters, I told our people, “When you get there, shut up. You can ask questions. But you cannot lecture. You cannot tell people the way they ought to do things. You know why? Because we’re on a learning expedition. Let the Morris Air people tell us. They’re new, they’re young, they’re fresh, they’re untrammeled. Let them tell us the ideas that they have.” And we got some fabulous ideas as a consequence of it, and basically that’s the value of humility.

Growth and Change

S+B: You’ve grown from a few people to more than 34,000. How much did growth change the way you manage Southwest?

KELLEHER: It didn’t really. Your tactics change, but your basic strategy does not. Our mission statement is eternal. Our mission statement deals solely with people. That never changes — in any way, shape, or form. The focus of Southwest Airlines has always been on its people, regardless of how large we grew. Everybody would keep saying to me, “Wait until you get to a thousand, wait until you get to 5,000, wait until you get to 10,000” — as if there was some bright line when you go over from the humanistic and entrepreneurial into the totally managerial. There is no such line in dealing with your people. Making them happy with what they’re doing, making them proud of what they’re doing, putting them in a position where they’re telling their grandchildren that Southwest Airlines gave me a greater reach than I ever would have had by myself — that continues to be effective whether you’ve got 5,000, 15,000, or 35,000.

One of the things that we do is continue to emphasize that we value our people as people, not just as workers. Any event that you have in your life that is celebratory in nature or brings grief, you hear from Southwest Airlines. If you lose a relative, you hear from us. If you’re out sick with a serious illness, you hear from us, and I mean by telephone, by letter, by remembrances from us. If you have a baby, you hear from us. What we’re trying to say to our people is, “Hey, wait a second, we value you as a total person, not just between eight and five.”

S+B: A lot of things are changing in the industry that might undermine the strategy you have followed for a long time. For example, you’re doing transcontinental flights. Does that require big changes in what you do?

KELLEHER: No. I’ll tell you, that was an interesting exercise because basically we’ve always tried to be empiricists and not theorize about what people want. When we started flying longer haul, even our own people would say, “Herb, you’ve got to have meals.” We’ve got to do this and we’ve got to do that. I said, “I’m not sure, but let’s just start flying and see.” Well, here are these people from Nashville who want to fly to Los Angeles. It costs them $1,200 less round trip, which gives them a lot of money to buy a dinner at Chasen’s, and they save two hours of their time because they don’t go through a hub. You think they care whether we have airline meals?

That’s another thing that we tried to do over the years: ready, fire, aim. In our business, where capital assets travel at over 500 miles an hour, you don’t have a lot of time to fool around with aiming, because by the time you’re finished aiming, somebody else will already be there. So get out there, do it, and clean up the mistakes afterward.

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