Last week Herb Kelleher, the co-founder of Southwest Airlines, passed away, ushering-in a steady stream of memorials and upbeat obituaries for a man who the New York Times credited with a “quirky” style that yielded steady profits. He was famous for his devotion to Wild Turkey, riding his Harley, and chain-smoking. But more importantly, under his watch, SW has reported profits for each of the past 45 years in an industry famous for boom and bust performance. As I explored what distinguished Herb from other executives, I found that he excelled for a number of rather simple and straightforward reasons.
His first secret was to put employees first — he remembered birthdays, comforted them in their sorrows, let them take figure out how to solve problems, all of which he said made them want to please customers and fostered a powerful company spirit.
Secondly, he kept things simple. SW is famous for delivering for its customers great service and the basics; affordable travel for more people and reliability in an industry recognized for unreliable service. Herb even wrote his own responses to angry customers. He really was a very special executive. I enjoy learning about great leaders and what makes them great. Herb Kelleher is close to the top of my list.