The transformation was so effective in the company that it eventually changed an entire industry as well (Lawless, 1998).
Another aspect of leadership lessons learned from Her Keller include his tolerance for individuality and non-conformity on the part of his employees, and how the culture of the company became known as a haven for those who wanted to work hard yet also have fun (Lubans, 2009). Not every leader can accomplish this unique feat of creating a culture tolerant and even promoting non-conformity over time, let alone become its main evangelist for this approach. Yet Mr. Kelleher realized that if management and the employees were going to trust one another, there would need to be an unpretentious, open culture that had a tolerance for failure and nonconformity (Lindebaum, Cartwright, 2010). Getting back to the point made earlier, a mindset that sees failure as feedback, not a dead-end, is critical for any transformational leader to excel (Ryan, 2009). Herb Kelleher cultivates this mindset in Southwest early on, and in some doing sets the groundwork for a leadership style that concentrating on the vision of what the comp[any can become. Quickly tying the vision to small wins sets Southwest in motion and makes the attainment of being a national airline reachable just two years into existence (Lawless, 1998).
In addition to these lessons learned, Mr. Kelleher and his senior management team choose to create a very flat, responsive organizational structure that allows each employee the opportunity to "own" their jobs. In later interviews, he mentions how when competing airlines refused to take Southwest tickets the decision was made to do away with them altogether and pursue a ticketless system (Lawless, 1998). Unknown to Mr. Kelleher at the time, employees in the operations department had seen how travel services companies and other airlines were starting to reject swapping Southwest Airlines tickets. They had begun work on a ticketless program eighteen months before and when it became clear the lack of cooperation in the industry would impact revenues, the employees stepped forward with the program and it was quickly adopted (Lawless, 1998). To this day when Herb Kelleher speaks on leadership this example is mentioned, as the ownership of the company by employees is clearly shown in the example. This very high level of initiative taken by employees illustrates the third major lesson learned from studying Herb Kelleher's leadership skills, and that is to infuse a corporate culture with a strong sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose to develop motivation in employees (Ramsey, 2010). This attribute is what makes Southwest employees seek to take accountability for the experiences of consumers and strive to make traveling less burdensome and difficult.
The Kelleher Approach to Leadership: Assessing His Dominant Styles and Strategies
Herb Kelleher is charismatic and plainspoken, pragmatic and unpretentious. His leadership style reflects what he values most, which is collaboration, hard work and selfless service for the good of the company and the customers. What makes his dominant style of transformational leadership so effective is how he readily admits mistakes, is authentic, and earns trust by doing what he says he will. When mistakes happen, he is one of the first to admit them.
Based on these attributes his dominant style is a combination of transactional and transformational leadership. What makes Herb Kelleher unique as a leader is the ability to quickly interpret short paths to accomplishment for attaining Southwest's vision then rapidly delivering on it. He seeks the highly pragmatic and concrete results of a transformational leader, while also excelling as a transformational one. This mix of transactional and transformational leadership continues to be very effective in managing an airline during turbulent times (Lubans, 2009). Studies of leadership effectiveness indicate that the greater the use of transactional leadership for short-term positive gain and transformational leadership for staying focused on a goal, the higher the level of overall organizational performance (Wang, Rode, 2010). This ability to interpret events and respond to them quickly, often sizing them up with little if any advance information, requires emotional intelligence (EI) in a leader as well (Lindebaum, Cartwright, 2010). Herb Kelleher has shown the ability to interpret conditions quickly and then respond to them. He is without question however one of the most transformational leaders of the airline industry in the last generation.
How Herb Kelleher Could Improve
When a leader is infused with passion, a healthy disregard for conventional wisdom that is provided in industry experts but rarely applicable to an emerging industry like the airlines, and has transformational leadership skills, their business will flourish. This is exactly what happened with Southwest Airlines under herb Kelleher. He created a platform of growth for employees that melded together trust, commitment to excel, and commitment to customers. This catalyst continues to move Southwest forward as the only airline in U.S. history to have never filed for bankruptcy.
Despite how remarkable the accomplishments are however, there is still the issue of how to attain a high level of agility in Southwest after he has completely retired. The legacy of any effective leader is in creating a corporate environment that can successfully nurture and create new opportunities for growth for employees, suppliers, stakeholders and customers (Bennis, 2009). Herb needs to consider how he can take the innate strength he has as a leader and create a scalable framework on which innovation can be created. His strength of personality and confidence and non-conformist mindset have propelled Southwest beyond all other American airlines who initially were considered to be far superior to the upstart in many ways (BusinessWeek, 1984). Instead, disruptive innovation occurred and an entire industry was re-ordered. What needs to happen is that Herb Kelleher needs to create a framework that capture the decision-making approaches he has successfully relied on so that Southwest can continue to withstand the economic turbulence globally while still attaining profitability, growth and customer satisfaction.
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