I never had the privilege of meeting Herb Keheller, Co-founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, but I considered him one of my mentors. Herb passed away on January 3 at the age of 87. He was at the helm of Southwest Airlines for 46 years.
Oddly enough, I was moved by the news of his passing. So much so, that I reached out to two leaders who are on the faculty of Advance Leadership Intensive (ALI). Chris Jenson (a principal consultant with Patrick Lencioni’ s Table Group) and Dave Ridley (who held several executive level positions at Southwest Airlines and, after retiring, held the position of Senior Advisor to the CEO) were both grateful to hear from me. I knew that if I was feeling the impact of Herb’s passing—without ever having met him—these two friends were definitely feeling a deep loss. Maybe I reached out because I wanted to connect with other people who would understand how I felt or maybe I just wanted my friends to know I was thinking of them; I am not sure. They used words like “big hearted” and “lover of people” as well as “friend, mentor, and exemplar of leadership” to describe Herb.
A giant passed when Herb died. His loss will be felt by anyone who knew him. Herb’s leadership philosophy was directly accredited with Southwest Airlines’ outlier success. Southwest Airlines has never filed bankruptcy. This is unheard of in the airline industry where filing bankruptcy seems like the norm. Herb’s transformative approach to leadership was outlined in a recent Forbes article, “20 Reasons Why Herb Keheller Was One Of The Most Beloved Leaders Of Our Time”. One of those reasons has always stood out to me. It seems like it would be intuitive in ministries and nonprofits, but a close look at our organizational cultures tell a different story. I believe this one reason can be transformative in the social sector where I have facilitated leadership training for over 400 ministry and nonprofit leaders at ALI.
“Put Employees First, Customers Second”
In the faith-based ministry and nonprofit world, we don’t like the word “customers”. We look down our noses at “for-profit” organizations that have “customers” as opposed to ministries and nonprofits that are “serving people”. We wear our organizational hearts on our sleeves, taking pride in the fact that we do not care as much about the bottom line, believing a worthy cause justifies “nonprofit” equaling “barely any profit”. We exist as the super-evolved amongst for-profit organizations having convinced ourselves that we are the most compassionate—caring for the broken, hurting, and marginalized. Yet, in many of our ministries and nonprofits, we serve the people outside and not the ones inside. Our “employees” are the ones who help put hands and feet to our vision and mission. In many cases, we do not “put employee’s first, customers second’ because our causes are so great and so noble; it is the person outside of our organizations that seems to matter most.
In Herb Keheller’s world, all people mattered, but his employees were always first. This strategy lead to Southwest earning a profit every year for 46 years. This strategy was not afraid to acknowledge when the customer was wrong and the employee was right. This strategy never sacrificed people for the bottom line—as is commonplace in for-profit organizations. This strategy valued people AND results. What if we began loving our employees by deeply caring about their personal AND professional development? What if our employees knew we cared about their total well-being beyond what they can do for us? What if loving our employees extravagantly inspired our employees to extravagant love for the ones we serve? I think Herb Keheller, a leadership giant, would say we were on to something.