The Lawyer who Would Fly
Herb Kelleher epitomizes the charismatic, efficient and affable CEO. He revolutionized the airline industry and created one of the most admired companies in the United States: Southwest Airlines. He attributes the keys to his success to his mother, who taught him at an early age the value of ethics, and ways in which business and politics intertwine. In 1967, businessman Rollin King proposed to Kelleher the seemingly audacious idea of starting an intrastate airline company. Rumor has it that they crafted the idea for Southwest Airlines in at a bar in cocktail napkin. Southwest Airlines went through a series of struggles before starting to make a profit a couple of years after it was found. It has been profitable every year since.
Kelleher asserted price control and ensured that market regulations by the Federal Civil Aeronautics Board would not apply by initially keeping Southwest flights intrastate. While a shrewd business move, competitors quickly took legal action to stop this. However, the ethos of offering honest pricing remain to this date. Kelleher’s leadership style revolved around listening, treating employees like customers, and not taking himself too seriously.
This is perhaps best highlighted by the legal battle between Southwest Airlines and Stevens Aviation. Both companies were fighting for the rights to the advertising tagline, “Just Plane Smart.” Kelleher suggested that he and Stevens Aviation CEO Kurt Herwald arm-wrestle for the rights, rather than engage in a lengthy and expensive litigation battle. Kelleher lost, but the event bought such positive publicity that Herwald allowed Southwest Airlines to continue to use the tagline.
Kelleher was adored by his employees and set the blueprint for businesses to genuinely offer value to its employees and customers alike.