Southwest Airlines: Destined to Crash or Gain Altitude?

I hate to contradict myself, but I was shocked, yet not surprised, to hear that 76-year-old co-founder and chairman Herb Kelleher has announced that he will step down as chairman of Southwest Airlines in May of 2008. As if that weren’t enough of a shock to one of the most unique cultures in the business world, president Colleen Barrett, 62, will also step down two months later!

I said “shocked, yet not surprised.” Let me explain as that is an obvious contradiction. I was shocked because these two dynamic personalities have been the backbone and foundation of this airline since its conception 41 years ago. It’s indeed difficult to even mention Southwest Airlines without visualizing either Herb and/or Colleen.

I wasn’t surprised because this move is obviously a very intelligent, calculated strategy of an organization transition that began in 2001 and will be completed next year. Imagine that … a seven-year leadership succession plan! When was the last time you heard of anything like that being carried out by any organization in any industry? This is just one example of why this alliance of the incomparable continues to topple every challenge they face.

As a speaker and trainer, I’ve been sharing the Southwest story for decades. It gets better every year! Over the years, I’ve encountered many non-believers and non-fans as you might expect of any successful organization. However, there is a multitude of very valuable lessons to be gained through observation of the daily operations of SWA.

Herb Kelleher? Where do I start? I personally believe this man is crazy! Like a fox. Serving as an attorney to San Antonio businessman Rollin King, Herb was instrumental in the creation and growth of Southwest from three airplanes in 1971 to 500 today. Herb and Rollin developed their business plan on a napkin over lunch in a restaurant. Southwest now serves 63 cities in 32 states through the efforts of 33,000 very loyal and creative employees. However, Herb isn’t as well known for creating this colossal empire as he is for some of the following facts:

  • Dressing up as Elvis for magazine covers
  • Jumping out of overhead bins
  • Donning Leprechaun and Easter Bunny suits to serve refreshments with his flight attendants
  • Arm wrestling on local TV for the rights to a slogan
  • Riding a motorcycle given to him by his pilots
  • A bout with prostate cancer
  • A legendary fondness for Wild Turkey Whiskey and cigarettes
  • An employee loyalty and respect enjoyed by very few leaders in any business

Herb Kelleher is a one-of-a-kind, risk-taking, charismatic leader who will be studied in MBA programs for years to come.

Leaving with Mr. Kelleher is his longtime associate, Colleen Barrett, who started out as his legal secretary and worked her way up to president of one of the nation’s largest airlines. Ms. Barrett , 62, became Southwest’s corporate secretary in 1978, its vice president of administration in 1986, its executive vice president for customers in 1990, and president in 2001. She is highly respected and well-recognized in leadership circles throughout the world for her many accomplishments.

Both Herb and Colleen will remain full-time employees at Southwest’s Dallas headquarters for five years after they leave their current positions. Their formal titles have yet to be determined. This, of course, is a crucial part of the succession plan and informally converts it to a 12-year plan. Again unheard of in today’s business world … yet it reeks of business wisdom leading to assured success.

Gary Kelly, current CEO and vice chairman since 2004, signed a new contract through February 1, 2011. His first position with Southwest was controller, which he accepted in 1986. The carrier did not name replacements for Mr. Kelleher and Ms. Barrett, although Mr. Kelly probably would take over one or both of those jobs after the pair’s departure from management.

Obviously, I could ramble on for hours scanning the many volumes of the Southwest story. I’m certain it will remain “The Never-ending Story.” However, I strongly recommend that you add the following two books to your personal and/or corporate libraries. You’ll not only enjoy them immensely and learn a great deal, but will find yourself referring to them constantly!

NutsThe Southwest Airlines Way

It’s interesting to hear some critics predict the demise of this airline and culture as Herb and Colleen move on to other challenges. I think not. They’ve developed a culture of personal and corporate pride, creativity, and desire to succeed that will propel this organization to even greater heights in the future. It’s going to be interesting to watch.

About Harry K. Jones

Harry K. Jones is a motivational speaker and consultant for AchieveMax®, Inc., a company of professional speakers who provide custom-designed seminars, keynote presentations, and consulting services. Harry's top requested topics include change management, customer service, creativity, employee retention, goal setting, leadership, stress management, teamwork, and time management. For more information on Harry's presentations, please call 800-886-2629 or fill out our contact form.

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