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Interview - Herb Keller

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Interview transcript from J.B. Bird's interview with Herb Keller on July 9, 2002 at Southwest Airlines headquarters in Dallas.

J.B. Bird: One thing I wanted to ask you about is humility. You hold that up as a corporate value.

Herb Kelleher: Yes, very strongly.

JB: It's not typically advertised as a corporate value.

HK: Yes, I know that. (Laughs.)

JB: Anybody who looks into the values of Southwest Airlines will notice humility, customer service - you've said profits are a by-product of customer service. You also have some other interesting ideas: that people shouldn't wear masks when they come to work and that business should be fun. You said that your employees should be able to realize their values at work. It seems like you've realized some of your values here in this job.

HK: Well I think that to a great extent I have and it's been very fulfilling in that respect because I think that we've created an environment where our people could be themselves, where they could act naturally, where they felt comfortable, where they experience less stress and more dedication to the organization as a consequence. And so I think that we've pretty much lived the values that we have espoused at Southwest Airlines and I hope that we always will.

JB: Are there other organizations that you know of that are a model for this kind of organization?

HK: No, I really don't know of any to tell you the truth, at least of any size, no. No other organization comes immediately to mind in that respect. Southwest Airlines has been kind of an outlier, you might say, kind of a maverick and in a sense kind of a leader. You know there are a lot of people today that are extolling the principles upon which we've operated Southwest Airlines - not from a business standpoint but from a personal standpoint and I'm very gratified that that's the case but we've never been messianic about. We've never tried to lecture other companies as to how they should behave, what kind of environment they should try to create, because there are a hundred roads to Rome and you can get to Rome by any one of those roads. But our focus has always been on the well-being and the joy that we want our people to experience.

JB: What are some of the sources of that for you personally?

HK: Well, being with them, really, that's the foremost motivation apart from my personal family because I feel like the people of Southwest Airlines are my extended family and I always tremendously enjoy being with them, talking to them, seeing them, trying to help them to the extent that I possibly can on an individual basis. I have described them as my Fountain of Youth. I've said that Ponce de Leon was looking in the wrong place in Florida - he should have come to Southwest Airlines and met our people because they will keep you perpetually young.

JB: And what about not wearing a mask at work? That seems revolutionary in so many ways and counterintuitive certainly to the stereotypical impression of Big Business -

HK: Yes, it is -

JB: Where does that come from in your life?

HK: Well, I just always have felt that people should be natural in their behavior, that they should be able to derive enjoyment from whatever they do. When they derive enjoyment they tend to work together better, they tend to be more productive. One time a ramp agent wrote me, he said, Herb, I've caught on to what you're doing, you're making work fun - and home is work. Now, I've never repeated that to anybody because I thought that wouldn't make me very popular in certain quarters but he did get it. And you know I don't think that in order for people to be effective they have to act like automatons.

JB: Would you say that things in your early business career or things from your childhood shaped your outlook here - did you have a desire from an early age to have an organization that allowed people to be themselves, and to be natural?

HK: No, I've just always felt that every individual should be himself or herself in any context or any environment whatsoever, and that was simply just an extension of how I've always felt life should be lived.

JB: It requires a certain amount of faith, as an outside observer -

HK: It does, it does - there's no question about it. It does require faith, and usually that faith is requited, because the only way that you ever get people, I think, to respond with trust and fidelity is to treat them as if you trust them and believe they will be faithful, otherwise that won't be the case. You have to give everyone the opportunity to show their best qualities. And some people don't, but many people are unleashed by it. It's kind of interesting to see.

We don't hire a great many people in management positions from other airlines, but we have hired some over the years where we felt that the expertise was required as we grew. And it's interesting to see their response because they get into the Southwest environment and for awhile they are like a new dog in town, just kind of sniffing around, because they want to see if this is legitimate, whether it's genuine, whether it's heartfelt. And after about six months, I would say, you get either one of two reactions: they feel liberated for the first time in their business lives and they say, "Hey, this is for real. I can say what I want to. I can joke. I can be friendly with people." Or in some cases they say, "This makes me feel very insecure, the fluidity of it is daunting to me. I need a more structured environment than Southwest Airlines has in order for me to be comfortable."

And that's what I call incompatibility. There's nothing right, nothing wrong about either position in a moral sense, so I just say we're incompatible, just like two people who got married and find out they shouldn't have.

JB: You mentioned that other companies are emulating the approach of Southwest -

HK: Well, you hear more talk about it.

JB: Do you have any specific examples where people have actually approached you and said, We're dying to learn how you do this?

HK: Oh, there are just a ton of them. We just - this I think is an illustration of Southwest Airlines walking its talk - we used to hold corporate days several times a year and companies from all over the world, not just the United States, would

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