Herb Kelleher, who died this month, is widely regarded as one of the greatest CEOs America has ever seen.
Which is odd, because he never set out to run a business at all. He started his working life as a lawyer in New Jersey, before moving to Texas. It was while having dinner one night with a client in San Antonio that the two began discussing an idea for an airline that would help people travel more easily around the vast State.
The business that grew out of this conversation, Southwest Airlines, became the template for every budget airline that followed – as well as a shining example of what you can achieve with a business if you start by thinking about the people who work in it.
Kelleher’s genius was for making things simple and creating a culture where people took themselves lightly, but their jobs seriously.
When recruiting new pilots, he once brought all the prospective candidates together in a hangar on a warm day – and then turned the air conditioning off. An employee came out, apologised for the heat and offered shorts to anyone who wanted them. Some accepted but most, worried about not looking business-like enough, stayed in their shirts, ties and long trousers.
Only the candidates who took the shorts were offered a job. Kelleher wanted people who would be driven by common sense, not protocol – and flexible enough to adapt to unexpected conditions.
Naturally gregarious and charismatic, he once publicly arm-wrestled a rival for the right to use a disputed slogan (he lost, but with such good grace that he was still allowed to use it).
Above all, Kelleher had a gift for inspiring loyalty and dedication from his employees, because they knew with absolute certainty that they were his first priority.
As he once put it:
‘If you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back – and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with your employees and everything else follows from that.’