Last post we looked at just one example of how Southwest Airlines has created a benevolent environment where team members embrace their responsibility to act in the best interests of the company itself. The result: profits year after year since forming over 40 years ago; this in an industry notorious for losing money.
Another of the Southwest stories I love — also from the book, Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, by Kevin & Jackie Freiberg (1996) — highlights how high character and integrity also brings with it a huge economic value.
Battles between airlines and their unions are commonplace, and the lack of trust between them has become almost proverbial. Yet, Southwest Airlines has historically had an excellent relationship with their union employees. How could that be?
To paraphrase the account in the book, former union representative, Rod Jones remembers arriving at Southwest just as the union was in the final phase of establishing a new contract with the company. There was one item the union wanted resolved before they would recommend the contract to those they represented. During an informal one-on-one conversation with the union president, John Schnobrich, Mr. Kelleher agreed and assured him it would be taken care of.
Mr. Jones recalls pressing Mr. Schnobrich for details as to exactly how it would be taken care of; did he have it in writing? When Schnobrich simply replied that “Herb told me it would be taken care of” Jones pressed harder. Schnobrich irritably countered, “You don’t need it in writing. When Herb Kelleher tells you something is going to be taken care of, it’s taken care of…Herb gave me his word on it, and that’s better than any piece of paper.”
And, according to Jones, “The issue was taken care of, exactly as Herb said it would be.”
Can you imagine that? Well, actually, those who know Herb Kelleher can absolutely imagine it.
There’s even more to this story, space not permitting. However, from the many similar stories in this book, other books and articles where Southwest is discussed as the standard for companies setting the right example, as well as the many Southwest employees and passengers I’ve spoken to, it can be reasonably said that the character of this company is a reflection of the character of the leadership.
Indeed, the brilliant and passionate Herb Kelleher is a free-spirited, on-the edge human being.
One could even call him a character. A legendary character
But he is, without question, a legendary character of very, very high character.