5 things to learn from herb kelleher the pioneer of low cost air travel

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Why was Herb Kelleher one of the most beloved aviation executives that ever lived? He was an intellectual giant that could converse with anyone on any subject anywhere. He was born on March 12, 1931 and lived life to the fullest for the 87 years. He recently passed away on January, 3, 2019. He was worth 2.5 billion dollars upon his death but he was as human as they come.

It can arguably said that he was the most influential executive in the airline industry as he built one of the leading airline companies-Southwest Airlines- during his lifetime. He has a zest for life that could not be quenched even when he was treated for prostate cancer in 1999. He had boundless energy, a sharp sense of humor and he loved people including his employees. He treated his employees and customers like human beings while maintaining top-notch service on all the company flights.

Never Sit in an Ivory Tower

Herb Kelleher never took himself seriously even though he was worth 2.5 billion dollars and ran one of the most successful airlines in aviation history. What does it mean that Herb Kelleher never sat in an Ivory Tower? Unlike a CEO he once met who did sit in an ivory tower. Some of the CEO’S employees entered the elevator as Herb and the CEO rode the elevator. The CEO did not even acknowledge the employees he acted as if they were not even there. This is being an untouchable boss and living in an ivory tower.

Herb never sat in an Ivory tower as he was always accessible to all his employees. He was a very personable boss and he could be approached by anyone. This is being personable and being a human boss. He would give himself to each and every one of his employees always treating them as an equal.

Don’t Think Yourself as Superior to Others

Herb grew in a neighborhood that seemed to have some affluence. There lived on his street a Bank President who walked with an attitude of self-importance and he could not be approached by his common neighbors. You see he thought he was superior to others because of the respectable position he held. Later he was sent to jail for embezzlement so what good did his superior position do for him in prison?

Herb, was the co-founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines one of the most successful airlines that ever flew airplanes in the sky. Herb was a legendary CEO during his lifetime and he won many awards during his career. Despite his fame, business savvy, victories in court, and legendary status he always maintained a level head and knew his strengths and weaknesses. He was married for 63 years and was survived by 3 children.

Like it was mentioned above he amassed a fortune of 2.5 billion dollars he was a billionaire but yet he maintained a spirit of humility and was always “one of the guys” to his workforce. After one meeting the audience gave him such an outstanding standing ovation that you would have thought you were at a rockn’ roll show. He treated everyone with respect and dignity and he never had a condescending attitude toward anyone. He accomplished more in a lifetime than some people could achieve in two lifetimes yet he maintained a level head.

Listen to the Ones Who Love You

Herb took this advice to heart and he took many life lessons away from his upbringing. Herb’s mother instilled life principles in Herb that he carried into his career that helped him become a legend in the airline industry. For years he was CEO of Southwest Airlines practically up unto the time of his death. He was also a co-founder of the airline conglomerate.

He lived life to the fullest every single year of his life and his mother taught him to treat employees better than your customers. This goes against conventional business wisdom that dictates that the customer always comes first. But if you have a company of disgruntled employees who hate their jobs and their managers you will not have any customers to serve because the employees will treat customers with disdain.

If you treat your employees bad they will treat their customers bad and the business will certainly die.  Herb’s approach was to treat the employees better than the customers and this philosophy paid off handsomely for him and the company.

You see if you treat your employees like family then they will treat the customers like family. When customers are treated right by the employees they will keep coming back to fly on that company’s airline. People will return to a company that offers top-notch service and treats them like they are the only customers the company has. People will remain loyal to a company that gives them fast, friendly and dedicated service.

Herb, knew how to spoil his employees and the company would run the business like a gem with fewer employees than other airlines had. This is because the employees fit in well with in the culture of the company and they had the mission of the company always in the forefront of their minds.

The employees also knew they had a boss that really cared about them as individuals and treated them like they were his own. He always listened to his employees and gave 100% of himself in conversing with them. He always made them feel valuable and special and he always thanked them for making the company so successful.

He would even attend company Christmas parties and sing at the parties. He would even help the baggage people load baggage on Thanksgiving Day. He allowed his employees to wear shorts and sneakers to work. One special moment for Herb came when 16,000 Southwest employees took out a full page ad in a very prestigious magazine thanking Herb for being such a wonderful boss to them.

Use Common Sense in Business

One thing Herb Kelleher was known for was his common sense and down to earth approach to business and problems that arose in running a big business. The company started around 1971 and quite frankly it ran in rough waters its first couple of years of existence. Despite the fact the company was losing money Herb refused to lay any employees so he cut back in other areas. The company implemented the radical notion of getting planes out every 15 minutes this meant everyone would pitch in and help to clean the airplanes to stay on schedule.

The company kept overhead down by staying with the same 737 aircraft for years and they kept fares down to earth for years. For example one airline charged $62.00 dollars to fly from Dallas to San Antonio but Southwest charged $15.00 dollars to fly between the same cities. Which airline would you choose to fly on? Southwest maintained excellent service and top-rate flightseven while charging much lower rates to fly.

The cost of using the same model of airplanes really helped the company’s bottom line and there was another major benefit from this practice. The pilots would always be trained on the same airplanes keeping the training consistent and when the pilots needed to retrain it was a cake walk because they would retrain on the same flight systems. The stress level for the pilots would be kept to a minimum as the pilots would just be responsible to know how to fly one type of airplane throughout their careers.

Herb, said if the company could not or it would not be in their best invest to invest in a new airplane or business method. He would just say no we are not going to do this. Instead of wasting money on a test project for two years. These types of decisions helped to keep Southwest in the black for years. There was never a time when the company had a period of major layoffs. All of this under Herb’s savvy business leadership.

Love Your Employees Like You Would Your Own Family Members

You know how people will say you need to love and care for your employees in word only. Herb not only said it in word but he backed up his words with actions. He would attend employee parties and sing at these events. He christened a new 737 plane with company co-workers right beside him. He hugged his employees, and joked with them like they were his best friends.

He always treated employees better than the company’s customers. This in turn helped the company to win numerous awards for service and they were always highly rated in customer satisfaction. You see he treated his customer’s well so in turn they treated their customers well. Herb would give 100% of himself when conversing with employees—as we mentioned before-- and he grieved when they were sad and he rejoiced in their victories. Herb Kelleher was a one of a kind CEO and human being. He will be sorely missed.

Conclusion: This article has discussed 5 life lessons that Herb Kelleher passed on to every person he interacted with, every meeting and event he attended. He was beloved by his workforce and at one time Southwest employed 58,000 people. The company rarely if ever lost money in any year it has operated. This is all because of the new style of management Herb brought to the airline industry. Southwest Airlines pioneered the practice of charging low air fares in the airline industry.