Remembering Southwest’s Herb Kelleher: In His Own Words

Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines Founder, former CEO and Chairman Emeritus in 2011. Credit: Southwest Airlines

Herb Kelleher, the revolutionary Southwest Airlines founder and CEO who made air travel a regular part of America’s middle class, died Thursday. He was 87.

He founded the company in 1967, a low- or no-frills regional airline that first took off in 1971, supposedly after being sketched out on a cocktail napkin. In the decades that followed, it changed the nature of transportation in the United States, introducing air travel to millions of Americans who had never been able to access it before (full New York Times obituary). In 1999, Chief Executive named Kelleher Chief Executive of the Year.

“Herb was a lifelong mentor and friend, and one of the greatest joys of my life has been working alongside Herb for over 30 years,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in a statement released by the company this evening. “His stamp on the airline industry and all those he touched has been profound. His vision for making air travel affordable for all revolutionized the industry, and you can still see that transformation taking place today. But his legacy extends far beyond our industry and far beyond the world of entrepreneurship. He inspired people; he motivated people; he challenged people—and, he kept us laughing all the way. He was an exceptionally gifted man with an enormous heart and love for people—all people. We have been beyond blessed to have him as a part of our lives.”

Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines, was our CEO of the Year in 1999.

Kelleher was well known for eschewing standard corporate practices, and for his down-home (and incredibly quotable) business wisdom. We could think of no better way of remembering him tonight than sharing some of our favorite Kelleher quotes, gathered from a variety of sources.

On Strategy:
“We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.”

On Loyalty:
“The core of our success. That’s the most difficult thing for a competitor to imitate. They can buy all the physical things. The things you can’t buy are dedication, devotion, loyalty—the feeling that you are participating in a crusade.”

On Leadership:
“Power should be reserved for weightlifting and boats, and leadership really involves responsibility.”

“Leading an organization is as much about soul as it is about systems. Effective leadership finds its source in understanding.”

“It takes nerves of steel to stay neurotic.”

“Think small and act small, and we’ll get bigger. Think big and act big, and we’ll get smaller.”

On Marketing:
“You must be very patient, very persistent. The world isn’t going to shower gold coins on you just because you have a good idea. You’re going to have to work like crazy to bring that idea to the attention of people. They’re not going to buy it unless they know about it.”

On People:
“Your employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees and the rest follows from that.”

“You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.”

On Humility:
“You can’t really be disciplined in what you do unless you are humble and open-minded. Humility breeds open-mindedness—and really, what we try to do is establish a clear and simple set of values that we understand. That simplifies things; that expedites things. It enables the extreme discipline I mentioned in describing our strategy. When an issue comes up, we don’t say we’re going to study it for two and a half years. We just say, ‘Southwest Airlines doesn’t do that. Maybe somebody else does, but we don’t.’ It greatly facilitates the operation of the company.”


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