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.

Taking Care of Each Other

My prayers and love go out to all of the folks whose lives have been impacted by the terrible fires in Northern and Southern California. Special prayers go out to families and friends of people who have perished in these fires. Times like this emphasize how much we need to care about each other and live every moment to the fullest—because we never know what’s around the corner.

Margie and I know what it’s like to have a home destroyed by fire: in 2007 we lost our house of 25 years in the Witch fire here in San Diego. We were out of town when it happened. When we were finally allowed back in our neighborhood, we walked down our driveway and our whole place looked like it had been cremated, including our cars. We were fortunate—although losing our house and all of our possessions was devastating, nobody got hurt.

Special praisings go out to the selfless firefighters who have come from all over to put their lives on the line as they battle the fires. Without them, the devastation could be so much worse. Many thanks as well to other courageous first responders including police and EMTs, as well as volunteers staffing the shelters that have been set up for displaced people, pets, and livestock. We are blessed to have these amazing servant leaders aiding our communities during this tough time.

Please take care of yourselves and those you love—and always keep your “I love yous” up to date!

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.

The Glass Is 100% Full

As humans, we often tend to look at the dark side of things. For many of us, the proverbial glass is always half empty.

This is unfortunate because research has shown that what we place our attention on tends to grow stronger in our minds and in our lives—for good or bad.  My daughter-in-law, Madeleine Homan Blanchard, has a master’s of science degree in neuroleadership from Middlesex University. As I’ve learned from Madeleine, studies confirm that your thoughts and experiences actually change the cells and structure of your brain—something scientists call neuroplasticity. If you focus on positive thoughts, your brain will strengthen the electrical pathways related to an optimistic outlook. If you focus on negative thoughts, your brain will become hardwired to pessimism.

There’s nothing wrong with identifying negative situations and working to make them better. The trick is to keep your eye on the positive. No one expressed this better than retired basketball legend Michael Jordan, who said:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Do bad things happen? Of course. But so do good things. This week Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reported that 2017 “was probably the very best year in the history of humanity.”  He pointed to statistics that showed a smaller proportion of the world’s population was hungry, impoverished, or illiterate than at any time before. “In another 15 years, illiteracy and extreme poverty will be mostly gone,” Kristof reported. “After thousands of generations, they are pretty much disappearing on our watch.”

Take that, gloom-and-doomers!

As a witty T-shirt points out, technically, that proverbial glass of water is always 100% full—half is full of water, half is full of air! So look at the bright side—your brain will thank you for it.

Life is a Very Special Occasion

I can’t believe how fast this year has gone by. I like the joke about how life is like a roll of toilet paper—the closer you get to the end, the faster it goes!

Of course, everyone’s year is 365 days long. But for a lot of us, it feels like the years go by faster than they used to. Why do you think that is? I recently heard an interesting theory. When you’re in your 70s like I am, each year is only about 1/70th of your life. But when you’re 5 years old, each year is 20 percent of your life! That’s why the years seem to fly by as we age.

Remember when we were young, how we couldn’t wait until the school year was over? It seemed to drag on forever when we were waiting for summer to arrive. These days, at the beginning of each new year, Margie and I say “Just think, pretty soon it will be summer and we’ll be at our cottage in Skaneateles!”—because we know how fast those months will go.

Whether you’re young or old, though, I hope you enjoy every day. Life is a very special occasion. Don’t miss a minute!