Yesterday Heb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines passed away. He was a maverick, a great business leader and an inspirational guy. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet Herb. Below is the story about my chance encounter with one of the most inspirational CEOs I have met.
While working at Time Warner Cable as an organizational development director, I was tasked with helping our organization benchmark other companies that were known for providing excellent customer service. Through networking I had identified contacts at Southwest Airlines in Dallas, TX. I was in Austin for other meetings and planned to meet my boss and our Chief Marketing Officer in Dallas where we were scheduled to tour Southwest Airlines and to meet with members of their leadership team.
My morning in Austin started very early as I had a 7:30am flight on Southwest Airlines from Austin to Dallas. I got to the airport early, cruised through security and lined up in the “A” queue at the Southwest Gate. As the queue began to grow I heard some commotion behind me. There was a tall man in a tan trench coat walking through the airport. As he was walking flight crew and gate crew kept going up to him to shake his hand or hug him as if he was some sort of celebrity. Who was this guy creating such excitement at 7am in the morning? As he got closer I recognized him. It was Herb Kelleher the CEO and founder of Southwest Airlines. Not only did he get closer, he actually came to my gate. He went up to the gate attendant gave her a hug and had a brief conversation before lining up in the “C” group queue along with all the other passengers. Apparently he too was taking this plane to Dallas. I was impressed that he lined up in the queue like all other passengers rather than cutting the line or looking for special treatment.
When the gate opened, I was one of the first to board the plane. I took a seat in row one on the aisle. I was curious to watch the boarding process and to see what happened with Herb. Because he was in the “C” group he was one of the last to board the plane. Upon boarding he hugged the flight attendants, shook hands with the pilots and took a seat in the cockpit behind the two pilots. Once boarding was complete I went up to the cockpit introduced myself and told him that I was headed to his headquarters with our Chief Marketing Officer and our Vice President of People Development. His comment was, “What would a big powerful company like Time Warner want to learn from his little airline?” Of course he said this somewhat jokingly. We chatted for a few minutes and he offered me a ride to the office. I thanked him but told him I would have to pass since I was meeting my colleagues at the airport. I did say I hoped to visit with him later in the day.
The plane took off with him sitting in the jump seat in the cockpit. As we cleared 10,000 feet the captain came on the PA to welcome everyone to the short flight to Luv Field, Dallas. The captain then said “Sit back, relax, enjoy our 30 minutes flight and say hi to our friend passing through the aisle in the red Southwest Airlines shirt” A few minutes later the heavily reinforced cockpit door flung open and out popped Herb who is a really tall guy. He was wearing a red Southwest Airlines golf shirt and carrying a large bag of Southwest Airlines peanuts. Herb handed me a small bag of peanuts as he proceeded down the aisle handing out peanuts to passengers, shaking some hands and thanking customers for flying Southwest Airlines.
I never saw Herb again on the flight because he worked his way to the back of the plane where he must have sat down next to a passenger or crew member for the remainder of the flight.
I have had the good fortune to meet and work with many CEOs throughout my career. Each has their own style, but the great ones treat their employees with respect and they genuinely enjoy interfacing with their customers. While I never worked for Herb Kelleher the stories are legendary. I felt fortunate on that early morning flight from Austin to Dallas to get exposure to Herb and his contagiously positive style.
The role of the leader is to support and inspire others. Leading an organization from the corner office is not a recipe for success. Being visible, and more importantly accessible to employees and customers differentiates the great leaders from the good ones.
As leaders it is the small actions that can have large impacts. Herb new how to relate to his employees, his customers and even his adversaries. While his legacy might be the airline he built, to me it is the culture he created and the way he treated his employees that sets a great example for others to follow.