Research Paper: Leadership Lessons Learned From Herb Kelleher

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Leadership Lessons Learned From Herb Kelleher

A leader is who one is, and a manager is what one does (Bennis, 2009). The innate strengths and abilities, perception and insight, bias for action and motivating others through inclusion and rewards, not punishment, is what typifies the highest performing leaders. These skill sets many argue are innate in the most effective leaders, as these people can transform organizations rapidly with their words, actions, plans and commitments fulfilled (Liu, Siu, Shi, 2010). A true leader is one that inspires trust and is willing to sacrifice more than they expect their subordinates to in order to attain a challenging goal. Studies indicate the highest performing leaders are those that have a very clear vision of what they are trying to accomplish and show they are willing to sacrifice more than anyone else to get to the goals they have set (Wang, Howell, 2010). These are called transformational leaders because they completely redefine organizations in the process of attaining visions and objectives over time (Wang, Howell, 2010). All of the prerequisites of an exceptional leader, or one that is transformational tends to sound so idealistic that the characteristic associated with them appear unrealistic. It isn't that these leaders never make a mistake, it is however in how they manage to move on through mistakes and failures. A transformational leader sees mistakes more from that standpoint of a learning experience, the failure in effect becomes feedback on which direction they should go. Instead of seeing failure as a reason to quit, transformational leaders see failure as just another validation point they are heading in the right direction (Ryan, 2009).

Why Herb Kelleher for a Study of Leadership

This mindset of seeing failure as feedback instead of a dead-end pervades how Herb Kelleher sees entrepreneurialism in general and Southwest Airlines specifically, as he has often mentioned in speeches given at colleges and universities (Lawless, 1998). Failure is not something to be covered up or lied about; it is something to embrace and learn from, which in turn becomes a mindset of continual improvement (Ryan, 2009). This fundamental difference in seeing failure as a crucible of clarification instead of a reason to punish or worse yet, lie about performance that sets the pace for a manager transforming into a leader, a point made in Dr. Carol Dweck's research for her book on mindsets (Ryan, 2009). Herb Kelleher exudes this attribute and mindset of seeing failure not as a dead-end but as a means to find the path to what will. He has said that failure has a way of stripping away any extraneous detail, forcing an even greater focus on results (Smith, 2004). This is one of the core aspects of the Southwest culture that liberates employees, freeing them to be themselves first, and embrace the creativity they have for their jobs. The non-conformist attitude that pervades Southwest would not be possible without this aspect of the leadership structure and direction Herb Kelleher insists on (Ryan, 2009).

Mr. Kelleher also created a culture rich with employee ownership, another key point he makes in many of the speeches he gives at colleges and universities when he is asked to speak (Ryan, 2009). As a leader, Mr. Kelleher insisted that every employee thoroughly understand the financial health of the company, how it was performing from an operations standpoint, and what the goals and objectives of the airline are as well. All of these factors are what also makes R. Kelleher ideally suited for leading a business in a heavily regulated industry and one marked by labor unions' strong influence (BusinessWeek, 1984). Herb Kelleher treats the labor unions as equal partners in the success of Southwest and provides them with the opportunity to participate in many aspects of the social activities of the company. He also provides union managers with a thorough definition of how the company is performing, what raises the mechanics, support teams who are unionized and pilots can expect (BusinessWeek, 1984). The transparency and trust that have made Herb Kelleher so successfully as a founder and CEO also have helped alleviate the high costs and often-stringent requirements unions can place on airlines. By creating a partnership with airlines, Herb Kelleher has successfully transformed a potential enemy into an ally and contributor to the success of Southwest (BusinessWeek, 1984). This relationship that Southwest Airlines management has with labor unions was called upon during the drastic downturn in traffic following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 when the unions agreed to pay cuts (which is unheard of in union -- management relations) to ensure Southwest could continue operating (Lubans, 2009). This was a remarkable concession and was attributed to Herb Kelleher giving union leaders the opportunity to have a sense of ownership of Southwest with the employees. Today the relationship between Southwest and labor unions continues to be collaborative and focused on shared objectives first, and many airline industry experts credit this with a unique accomplishment only Southwest has achieved. It is the only U.S.-based airline to have never filed for bankruptcy protection.

Can a leader save a company? In the case of Southwest Airlines, the answer is a most definitely "yes" as Mr. Kelleher works to create alliances, partnerships and relationships with stakeholders that have a very significant effect on the financial performance of Southwest.

In addition to the literal network of trust Herb Kelleher has created with suppliers, employees, labor unions and the thousands of suppliers the company relies on to operate, Mr. Kelleher had the insight to standardize on a single aircraft, a decision unheard of at the time it was made (Lawless, 1998). Airlines typically had a broad selection of aircraft for the unique needs of the flight segments and locations they flew between. Southwest looked at this as a massive duplication of costs and through financial calculations and a study based on Six Sigma quality management programs, realized that by just using the Boeing 737, they could trim costs by 60% or more the first year alone (BusinessWeek, 1984). This decision also led to Southwest Airlines being able to turn a jet around in as little as 15 minutes, an operational feat still not matched by anyone in the airline industry (Smith, 2004). Herb Kelleher's vision for Southwest Airlines was to be the airline for the common person, and as a result, he was the first CEO to put into place just a single class of service and not serve meals onboard. This further standardized the most costly processes that airlines face and contributed to the profitability of Southwest over the long-term. Finally Herb Kelleher realized from the initial flights between Texas cities that the smaller satellite cities offered a much greater opportunity for rapid growth compared to competing with national airlines entrenched and fighting to protect their major hub cities. American Airlines in Chicago, Delta in Atlanta, and United in New York all were formidable competitors who worked to stifle the growth of Southwest as the model represented disruptive innovation in the airline industry (BusinessWeek, 1984). Despite these competitors multiple times the size of Southwest Airlines who predicted the failure of a low-cost airline, Herb Kelleher forged ahead, and in a highly unconventional and non-conformist way, completely re-architected an industry. His creation of many innovations throughout the airline industry including the development of the Low Cost Carriers (LCC) segment, still is revolutionizing the airline industry today, as is the practice of fuel hedging, a key strategy in Southwest as they grew to a national carrier (Wood, 2005).

Leadership Lessons Learned From Herb Kelleher

Being able to create a culture that embraces autonomy, mastery, and purpose at its core is a powerful motivator for employees to take ownership of their jobs and the long-term learning necessary to excel at it (Ramsey, 2010). Herb Kelleher, in defining the culture of Southwest, often has said that it is the intangibles that are the most costly to create, sustain and strength, and therefore deserve the greatest focus (Lee, 1995). Mr. Kelleher believes that if employees see their contributions as lasting, meaningful and significant, they will be much more inclined to fully commit themselves to their job. This is the essence of what transformational leadership is. Mr. Kelleher, by creating a strong, unified vision for Southwest Airlines, galvanized employees together towards a common, difficult goal. He also was able to successfully provide proof points of the vision by creating a strategy that provided measurable, relevant and as the company matured, real-time status on the attainment of goals. This provided concrete feedback that the vision that Southwest Airlines was formed to fulfill could be a reality. Finally, Herb Kelleher continued to confidently and optimistically define the future direction of the airline, which over time showed how the vision the founders had for Southwest could be transformed into a reality (BusinessWeek, 1984). This progression form vision to accomplishments that Herb Kelleher and his management team oversaw at Southwest is the essence of transformational leadership, as the series of decisions galvanized… [END OF PREVIEW]

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