3 Leadership Lessons I Learned from Southwest Airlines

Originally posted on

The Good Men Project

Southwest Airlines #leadership Herb Kelleher by Dale Thomas Vaughn

“Absurdly, our most important human affairs - marriage, child rearing, education, leadership - do best when there is occasional loss of control and an increase in personal vulnerability, times when we do not know what to do.” Richard Farson, Management of the Absurd.

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In my experience as a leader both inside and outside of a business context… I’ve seen that my most successful mentors did not see themselves as “in control,” but rather as flexible learners and avid teachers. I was just 21 when I did a year of communications consulting within Southwest Airlines, where my team met and worked closely with Colleen Barrett, Gary Kelly and Herb Kelleher. I was surprised at how seriously they took their corporate culture, and I was inspired by how committed they were to being great leaders.

...the biggest takeaway I have from closely studying these leaders… is the power of being nimble.

I watched and I learned how to trust a team, how to have passion, patience, enthusiasm, and courage. But the biggest takeaway I have from closely studying these leaders… is the power of being nimble.

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To be nimble is to trust your team.

The reality is we can’t predict all the possibilities of the future of our team or our business. What we can do is train, execute, and then occasionally just be ready to be vulnerable and open to seeing the bigger picture and trusting the wisdom within us or within the group around us during times of tumult. As a major airline with 20,000 employees in-flight, tumult is a daily reality. The leaders see the employees as their most important constituency because they know that a nimble company has to be able to trust their people.

To be nimble is to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses

It’s okay to not know everything as a leader and entrepreneur. It’s actually much better to know what you don’t know than to pretend you know everything. Your team wants to know you are human and that you need their honest opinions and ideas in order to lead. Your team wants to know you aren’t trying to manipulate or change them, and that you sometimes honestly don’t know what’s next. The leaders at Southwest went out seeking opinions from employees. They welcomed employee ideas as if they were serious business opportunities. I witnessed the President of the company intently listening to a reservations agent about ways to improve the customer interaction. I have never seen anything like that level of humility and interest from an executive since. They know their business strength is their dedicated people (employees) and their corporate culture.

To be nimble is to have a purpose that is firm, but a plan that is flexible.

At Southwest, all of the employees knew the business was theirs. Many of them were stockholders and most of them knew the stock price of the company everyday. The employees were invested in the company because the company had proven to be invested in them. This mutually beneficial business relationship was the purpose of the company… to make money together as a corporate family who cared about each other. That’s why the stock symbol of the company is LUV. And yet the plan to get to profitability is flexible. The employees are always on the lookout for ways to save the company costs or make the company more profitable.

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if you've learned something from this awesome company about leadership.

This post was not endorsed by Southwest Airlines in any way. I do not have any ties to the company outside of general good will (although I wouldn't turn down new ties in the future if an opportunity came along... I'm no fool).