Unforgettable Herb Kelleher

Last Thursday, we lost probably the finest corporate leader I have known in my leadership development career: Herb Kelleher, cofounder and longtime CEO and president of Southwest Airlines. Not only was Herb the visionary who created the model for a low-fare, customer-first airline, he believed every executive is only as good as his or her people. And he walked his talk. More than anybody I’ve ever worked with, Herb Kelleher lived and breathed the philosophy that the number one customer of any organization is its people.

I first met Herb through Southwest’s president emeritus, Colleen Barrett. When Colleen ordered 30,000 copies of the book I coauthored with Barbara Glanz called The Simple Truths of Service: Inspired by Johnny the Bagger, I was so blown away by the size of the order that I flew to Dallas to meet her. Because Colleen and Herb had worked together since 1967 nurturing and grooming Southwest Airlines into one of the most admired companies in the world, meeting Colleen’s mentor and teammate was a foregone conclusion. From the moment I met him, I loved Herb’s big smile, tremendous sense of humor, and ability to bring insight and laughter to any situation.

I could tell many tales about my fun times with Herb, but my favorite story happened just after he had recorded his foreword for the audio version of Colleen’s and my coauthored book Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success.

“Let’s go get a drink!” said Herb. He was always ready to do that. We went back to my hotel where my wife, Margie, would be meeting me later so we could go to dinner with the board of directors for Halftime, a faith-based ministry founded by the late Bob Buford. (Margie still serves on the Halftime board.)

At the hotel bar, Herb and I started drinking sidecars, one of his favorite drinks, made up of three ingredients: Cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. By the time Margie arrived, let’s just say Herb and I were feeling no pain. Margie could easily tell I was not in any shape to go to dinner with a bunch of faith-based folks. When she began to give Herb a One Minute Reprimand, he held up his hands in surrender, saying, “Margie, this was all Ken’s idea! I’m usually a teetotaler!” We all had a good laugh about that.

Margie said, “Okay, Ken, you can come to dinner—just don’t say anything.”

Herb, now getting into the absurdity of the situation, said, “That would be something to see!”

So I went to the dinner. The seating was organized in a circle. When the waiter came around to take our appetizer order, I whispered, “I notice you have chocolate cake à la mode. Bring me that for my appetizer.” When the waiter put the cake in front of me, all conversation around the table stopped and all attention was focused on me and my appetizer/dessert. The cat was out of the bag—I was plastered.

When I called Herb the next day and told him what had happened, he roared. Suffice to say it cost me a lot of backrubs over the next few weeks to get Margie’s full forgiveness. After that incident, every time Margie and I saw Herb, the first thing out of his mouth was “Margie, that was not my fault!” and then we’d all laugh.

I’ll miss Herb—and not just because of the fun, fabulous human being he was. Herb taught me a lot about what it takes to be a pioneer, a maverick, an innovator, and a fabulous motivator of people. To Herb, the “business of business” was people.

A lot of folks are going to miss you, Herb, including the many thousands of employees of Southwest Airlines. You were the best in the business. Rest in peace and God bless.

The Precious Present

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift—that’s why they call it the present.”

You may have heard this quotation, attributed to many different people including Eleanor Roosevelt. It reminds me of when I first met Spencer Johnson. He had just finished a manuscript entitled The Precious Present (Doubleday, 1984).  It’s a wonderful parable about a young boy who lived near an older man who always seemed to be happy. One day the boy asked the old man about it.

The old man told the boy that the secret to lifelong happiness was finding the Precious Present. “It is a present because it is a gift. And it is precious because anyone who receives such a present is happy forever.”

“Wow!” the little boy exclaimed.  “I hope someone gives me The Precious Present.”

For years as the young boy grew, he searched high and low, trying in vain to find the Precious Present. Finally, as a grown man, he stopped to recall the things the happy old man had told him so many years ago. At that moment, he realized the Precious Present was just that: the present. Not the past, not the future, but the Precious Present.

It’s okay to learn from the past, but don’t live there. And it’s okay to plan for the future, but don’t live there, either. If you really want to be happy as you go through life, don’t lose what is precious to you. Live in the present.

What a powerful message. I always remember it when I’m feeling bad about something that’s already happened or when I start worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. Living every day to the fullest is really the best way I know to be happy for the rest of your life. Thanks, Spencer.

Create a Workforce of Self Leaders

Leaders and managers ask me all the time how they can help their people become self leaders. It’s no secret that employees who are proactive self starters are huge contributors to organizational success. But sometimes people just don’t have the skills or confidence to get what they need to become high achievers.

That’s why I’m proud to announce the release of our newly revised Self Leadership program that I co-developed with motivation and engagement experts Susan Fowler and Laurence Hawkins. The success of your company depends on every person being empowered and committed to achieving results. Yet sometimes when it comes to training, individual contributors are overlooked. But if you don’t help them reach their full potential, your company won’t reach its potential, either.

This engaging new program is based on years of research. It teaches individuals the mindset and the skills they need to proactively take the reins, achieve their goals, accelerate their own development, and ultimately help the organization flourish. The truth is that people want to be engaged, to make meaningful contributions, and to be appreciated. And it is your job as a leader to help them be the best performers they can be.

I encourage you to take a look at the Self Leadership program and invest in the talent you already have in your company. I guarantee you’ll build an empowered workforce of people who are productive, innovative, and passionate about their work—and that passion will grow into individual, team, and organizational success.

Do Your People Trust You?

Trust has taken a hit lately in all facets of our lives, but especially in organizations. A dwindling level of trust between workers and leaders is one of the unfortunate consequences of financial mismanagement and economic meltdown within the working sector.

So, how can you tell whether or not your people trust you? Watch what they focus on. Do they pay more attention to their work—or to you? If they seem to be focusing more on what you are doing than on their own tasks, chances are they don’t entirely trust that you are there to help them succeed.

Make it clear to your staff that you are there to help and encourage them, not to judge them or nitpick their efforts. When you help people understand that as their leader, you work for them and will do whatever it takes to support and encourage them, they will be more empowered, innovative, and productive. And that’s a win-win for everyone!

Empowerment: The Key to Creating a Collaborative Culture

Effective leaders learn early in their careers that they can’t manage whole projects singlehandedly. They need an empowered team working collaboratively to achieve goals. In our new book, Collaboration Begins with You: Be a Silo Buster, my coauthors Jane Ripley, Eunice-Parisi Carew, and I explain the importance of empowering yourself as a leader and building collaboration by empowering your team.

In past blogs, I described the first four elements of the UNITE acronym that we developed to help describe what it takes to build a collaborative culture: Utilize differences; Nurture safety and trust; Involve others in crafting a clear purpose, values, and goals; and Talk Openly. Today I want to share more about the fifth element—Empower yourself and others.

When I think of a leader trying to go it alone, I imagine a crew team with only one oar in the water. It isn’t hard to realize that the boat isn’t going to get very far with only one person rowing. But, when all oars are in the water and team members are working together, the boat seems to glide over the water without effort. The same is true when a leader tries to manage all aspects of a project. Doing it alone just isn’t efficient. Having an empowered team take initiative and accept responsibility is the most effective way to not only reach goals but exceed them.

It is important to remember that a collaborative leader must still set work direction, resolve conflicts, and remove obstacles. However, with an empowered team the role of leader is to coach the team members and support collaboration. Leader and team members work together with a unified vision, complete trust in each other, and open communication in a truly collaborative culture.

How well do you think you are empowering yourself and your team? Ask yourself these questions.

  1. Do I continually work to develop my competence?
  2. Do I feel empowered to give my opinions during idea sessions, even if I disagree?
  3. Do I actively build and share my network with others?
  4. Do I share my skills and knowledge with other departments?
  5. Do I believe my work is important to the organization?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, you probably feel empowered yourself and serve as a role model for your team members to become empowered, too. If you answered no to any of the questions, think about what you can do to change your behavior. Encourage your direct reports to collaborate not only with team members, but also with others in the organization. I guarantee you’ll see people start to share knowledge, generate new ideas, and reach higher levels of performance—all in a culture of collaboration.

Collaboration Begins with You Book coverTo learn more about Collaboration Begins With You: Be a Silo Buster, visit the book homepage where you can download the first chapter.