Beautiful Leadership – Purpose and Herb Kelleher

Herb Kelleher

Yesterday I wrote: “Purpose and the Corporation” and wrote:

“I ask businesses I work with to consider a different type of triple bottom line:

  • Purpose
  • People
  • Planet

Yes, I always ask them to focus on the Profit they will make, yet Profit, to me, is the outcome of a corporation, a business focussing first and always on their Purpose, their People and our Planet.”

On January 3rd this year we lost Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines. Ever since flying with them in the early 90s, I have studied this airline and how Herb led it.

A true example of putting Purpose first, then the People of the airline. As to Planet, well, as I wrote about in “Being More“: the word more “takes away specific targets or goals, it simply creates space to be, to do more. More is an invitation. An invitation creates space for opportunities.

I studied and learned so much about leadership from Herb Kelleher, today I’ll muse on this to share some of what I learned.

Herb Kelleher is inseparable from SouthWest and so to learn about what Herb stood for as a leader and what we can learn from him, we can quite simply look at the legacy he left with SouthWest.


A purpose statement, to me, is about “why do we exist, apart from making money?”.

Purpose sits above Vision, is powered by Values. The Mission flows from all of that. These should also be clearly and simply stated. The SouthWest website does this so, so well.

SouthWest airlines has always been clear on their Purpose:

“We exist to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.”

Simple. Powerful.

It drives and motivates all their staff beyond anything else.


Herb Kelleher always put his people first.

For many years I’ve bucked against the saying “put your customer first”. When I began leading businesses I voraciously looked to learn from those business leaders who had shown the way to lead beautifully and, as a “virtuous circle” make profits so they could do more to live the purpose of their business.

Herb Kelleher was one person I studied and emulated. Herb Kelleher totally believed in putting his people first. Only by putting your people first can they, sustainably, look after your customers. Oh, and he put shareholders third. As Herb said:

“When I started out, business school professors liked to pose a conundrum: Which do you put first, your employees, your customers, or your shareholders? As if that were an unanswerable question. My answer was very easy: You put your employees first. If you truly treat your employees that way, they will treat your customers well, your customers will come back, and that’s what makes your shareholders happy.”

People first, Customers Second, Shareholders Third.

Oh, and woe betide any customer who tried to claim compensation from SouthWest through falsely accusing a SouthWest staff member of an inappropriate or wrong decision. Put another way, speak falsely of a SouthWest employee and Herb and his leadership would come after you with the full force of the law, even if it made no commercial sense to pursue. The message such actions would send to the staff were so powerful. SouthWest puts their people first.


As I have said, we can all do more in all areas of leadership. Back when Herb founded SouthWest, the environmental focus was not high for almost any corporation globally. It has grown a lot, and as it has grown it has anchored to core values in their environmental focus.

Gary Kelly, CEO, begins their environmental report with these words:

Doing the Right Thing. It’s not just a slogan at Southwest Airlines; it is our way of life. We
practice this concept in a million different ways, every day. Southwest is privileged to serve millions of Customers annually who have chosen to patronize us with their hard-earned money. Southwest honors our Customers’ patronage by doing the right thing for
them—providing Safe, comfortable, and reliable air transportation. Our Mission Statement puts it this way: “The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit.”

The 35,000+ Employees of Southwest Airlines are the heart and soul of our Company. Doing the right thing for these Employees includes providing them with a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth. Creativity and innovation are encouraged for improving the effectiveness of Southwest Airlines. Above all, Employees will be provided the same concern, respect, and caring attitude within the organization that they are expected to share externally with every Southwest Customer.

Our planet sustains us, and, if treated right, it will provide us with stability. To recognize the importance of our home, one only needs to look at the exhilarating photo of Earth that was photographed by the Astronauts of Apollo 8. In this one picture, it is possible to contrast the lushness of our planet with the stark bareness of the moon. Earth appears as a welcoming lifeboat in the void of space. Doing the right thing for our planet is not just “good business,” it is necessary for our survival.

Feels very aligned to who they are and why they exist.


Remember my triple bottom line leading to Profit as an outcome ?

Purpose + People + Planet = Profit ?

From the tribute to Herb Kelleher published the day of the Celebration of his Life, yesterday, January 23rd, :

“Herb led Southwest Airlines, first as the Company’s Cofounder and legal counsel from 1966 to 1982, then as President, CEO, and Chairman from 1982 to 2001. During his tenure, Herb Kelleher produced the highest return to shareholders of any company in the S&P 500”

In an industry famous for NOT making money, what a literally incredible statement to be able to make.

Profit follows Purpose, not the other way around.

More on Herb, from SouthWest airlines people themselves.

To close, the site is quite beautiful. Do visit it to see the impact Herb made on so many people in the SouthWest family.

I leave you with their tribute video:

Also published on Medium.