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Here’s to the mavericks who light up organizations

I don’t often do obituaries in this column. And certainly not of chief executives. But exceptions have to be made.

Herb Kelleher, cofounder of Southwest Airlines, was indeed special. I have talked about him and his remarkable company many times in seminars and lectures. Now he’s gone, and those who love to see business (or anything else) done differently should take a moment to record the passing.

You see, if you are enjoying affordable air travel anywhere in world, you probably have Herb to thank for it. Flying in airplanes was a rich person’s game, until Southwest rocked up and changed the rules of the game. This company showed that air travel could be affordable, could be for the common man, and that the airline daring to do this need not go bust. Imitators sprang up all over the world; and now cheaper air travel is in the reach of many more millions of people.

Southwest, meanwhile, is a legend in the business world. In an industry famous for bankruptcies and restructurings, this airline has never had a money-losing year. Had you put $10,000 in its IPO, you would have been sitting on $10.2 million 30 years later. Southwest now carries more passengers in the US than any other airline.

I will come to what the rest of us should learn from Herb Kelleher. But before doing that, let me recount what makes me wish I had met the man in person. Renowned writer Bill Taylor, who has written extensively about Herb over the years, noted in his HBR obituary that he first came across the man in the 1980s, when Bill was fresh out of business school and attending a big, boring strategy conference,. A multitude of professors and executives provided a multitude of boring presentations. Herb walked up to the podium, lit a cigarette and poured himself a shot of bourbon – before going on to make a brilliant address.

‘We have a strategy’, Herb would say. ‘It’s called doing things.’

The strategist in me applauds, because I know that the problem with strategy is not in thinking great thoughts (those can even be bought, if you don’t have them); the problem is in getting things done by others, willingly and enthusiastically.

But make no mistake, though, Herb had a strategy. He positioned his airline with utmost clarity and discipline. He kept it very, very simple. One type of aircraft. Secondary airports. Point-to-point routing. Quick flight turnarounds. No frills, but no nasty practices either. Cheap fares – but not at the cost of service. It worked, and how. So that’s my first lesson from Herb for you: stop overcomplicating things, and don’t try to be all things to all people. Set a unique positioning in your market, stay there, and beat anyone who tries to take your place.

Second lesson: have fun at work! This is a man who once settled a business dispute by arm-wrestling a competitor. When his rivals dissed his airline as a cattle-car operation, he appeared in a TV commercial with a bag over his head, and said any customer embarrassed to fly with him could have a free bag! That fun-loving style percolated through the company. Up to today, employees can be seen on viral YouTube videos engaging in zany antics with their passengers.

Third lesson: it’s the culture, stupid. I often tell my clients: strategy is what you think you’ll do; culture is what you’ll actually do. Culture rules. But hardly anyone knows this. Everyone creates mind-numbing, controlling, soul-sapping cultures. And they lose because no one gives a damn about their work. People at Southwest engaged with their work, had fun with it, and loved doing it. Herb reciprocated. In an interview he said his proudest achievement was that he never laid off a worker. In 1994, his pilots took out a full-page newspaper advert to thank him: ‘…For listening…For being a friend, not just a boss.’

Will Herb’s magic last? Will Southwest maintain the legacy? Who knows? The point is, in his lifetime he dared to be different and made a real ding in his world. He saw business as a cause, not a set of transactions. He ‘democratized the skies.’ He wasn’t selling, he was living a purpose. Hats off to that, and to all the mavericks out there who refuse to conform, who do it differently, who resist easy conformity. If you also hate the same-old and the me-too, join me in waving goodbye to a true original. Herb Kelleher, RIP.

(Sunday Nation, 20 January 2019)

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