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The Legacy of Herb Kelleher, Co-Founder of Southwest Airlines

The Legacy of Herb Kelleher, Co-Founder of Southwest Airlines
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Herb Kelleher, a true business original, died last week at the age of 87. What strikes me is how much all of us can learn from what he created and how he led — that you can create vast economic value based on genuine and generous human values, why what you hope to achieve in the marketplace must be reflected in what you build in the workplace, how in an age of disruption and transformation, simplicity and consistency matter most.

Southwest’s performance since it began as a public company in 1971 is the stuff of business legend. But here’s what’s so vital for the rest of us to understand about what Herb Kelleher built — the essential piece of his legacy. To him, Southwest Airlines was never just a company. It was a cause. The goal, in his words, was to “democratize the skies” — to make it as easy, affordable and flexible for average Americans to travel as it had always been for business travelers and the affluent.

In other words, it’s not what you sell, it’s what you stand for. That’s the title of a book by Texas advertising luminary Roy Spence, one of Herb Kelleher’s closest business partners. “Business strategies change,” Spence told me. “Market positioning changes. But purpose does not change. Everybody at Southwest is a freedom fighter.”

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Herb Kelleher and Southwest knows about his fun-loving antics and the company’s high-energy culture. But what all of us can learn from him, even if we don’t share his sense of humor, is that great leaders make an explicit connection between what they are trying to achieve in the marketplace and what they are building in the workplace.

There’s one final (and overlooked) piece of Herb Kelleher’s legacy that deserves emphasis. As revolutionary a force as Southwest has been, and as large a shadow as Kelleher cast over the airline business, his company won big, and he became one of the great entrepreneurs of all time, because of a commitment to simplicity and consistency rather than nonstop innovation. In a surprising but instructive way, Southwest was wildly successful over decades because it was slow to change rather than because it was eager to change.

We’ll see if Southwest can stay true to the principles of its co-founder as it navigates the always-turbulent airlines industry. But all of us can reflect on what Herb Kelleher achieved, admire a business life well lived, and reflect on how his legacy might improve our performance as leaders.

Thanks for the ride, Herb.

(Bill Taylor is a co-founder of Fast Company.)

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