Thrive During Crisis – 5 Leadership Lessons From Southwest Airlines

And by Southwest Airlines, I am mainly referring to its charismatic former CEO, the late, great Herb Kelleher.

Herb is renowned for being one of the most successful modern business leaders, leaving a remarkable legacy, and countless anecdotes of his highly effective, culture based leadership style, during his reign of almost five decades.

What is most notable about Herb, is how he treated his employees. The extraordinary measures he took to build trust and loyalty with his workers, created a culture that helped Southwest airlines become the only airline in history to always turn a profit, without needing to lay off or furlough a single member of staff during economic adversity.

In fact, Herb often cited developing a strong culture as the most important contributor to success, particularly during the hard times. When the airline industry faced a crisis immediately post 9/11, Herb was asked how Southwest airlines managed to not just stay afloat, but keep every staff member without reducing their flying schedule. He responded “we had actually been preparing for 3 decades”. What he was referring to was the trust and loyalty established with his staff throughout the years, which at that time the company relied upon more than ever, calling everybody forward to make sacrifices and pitch in a little more, in order to get through the unprecedented economic turbulence ahead.

The current COVID-induced economic climate bares resemblance to that which followed 9/11, with the airline industry obviously suffering again. However there are vastly more businesses across numerous industries also feeling the devastation, with the possibility of catastrophe looming.

One would assume that Southwest will yet again be at the frontline of the resistance, providing they emulate the ways of Herb Kelleher , and here are some ways that you can tap into the philosophies and practices that helped Southwest thrive, even through adversity...


Herb Kelleher was known for his straight shooting communication, and for being a man of his word. One of the best ways to build trust with employees is by telling it like it is. Sugarcoating information about the situation, usually in an effort to avoid diminishing morale, can lead to a false sense of security and therefore reduced chances of the grit and sacrifice needed to pull through the tough times. Keep your staff informed on updates and decisions openly and consistently.

Be careful not to make promises you may not be able to keep. The best way to lose trust and create panic is to guarantee no lay offs for example, only to end up having to make staff cuts in a bid to save the company.


One of Herb Kelleher’s most admired characteristics was his humility. He would often lay his ego aside and get into the trenches to work alongside his employees. He also wouldn’t ask his employees to make sacrifices that he wasn’t willing to make himself. His egalitarian approach was demonstrated by the fact that he always chose an office without windows. Another example is when the company made an agreement with the pilot’s union to impose a 5 year wage freeze in exchange for a 10 year stock option. After the negotiation, Herb told his pilot’s “what’s good for you is good for me as well”, and froze his wages too.

A great resource I recommend that emphasizes this concept is a book called Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek.

This servant leadership approach must be extended to your customers also, and putting your customers' needs before the company’s can pay dividends in the long run. After 9/11 most airlines refused to refund tickets for passengers who were afraid to fly. Southwest never hesitated to give money back, despite the risk. Sometimes passengers reciprocated the love: in the months following 9/11, some of Southwest’s loyal customers sent checks to the airline to help it get through the hard times.



Anybody who worked with Herb would agree that he can be tough. How else could you maintain Southwest’s famous policy of turning around a plane from pulling into the gate to taking off in 10 minutes, without displaying a decent level of accountability, and constructive feedback for substandard performance? But Herb felt there was a difference between being tough, and being mean. It is important to find the sweet spot of holding each other accountable, without dehumanizing, shaming or belittling, which will inevitably lead to a fear-based culture that sucks the life and motivation out of your people.

At Winning EQ, we recommend you consider offering some "Giving & Receiving Feedback" training to your staff at all levels.


While this is recommended as common practice, it is crucial during adversity when the entire company is required to give an extra 5% - 10% and work as a team.

Herb didn’t see a distinction in class, ethnicity or title when dealing with his employees and customers.

Years ago, one of his executive officers said, “Herb, it’s harder for me to get in to see you than it is for a mechanic, a pilot, a flight attendant, or a reservations agent.” Half-jokingly, Herb said, “I can explain that to you very easily, they’re more important than you are!”

Nothing says “we’re in this together” more than empowering employees beyond Senior Management to contribute to strategic planning, such as reporting observations of client behavior and the market landscape, creating extra eyes and ears to facilitate innovation and rapidly seizing opportunities.


I realize during these uncertain times of hardship that it may appear easier said than done, or even inappropriate to suggest that having a laugh and bringing the joy to the situation, is one of the best ways to ease tension and raising morale, thereby raising motivation and productivity.

Kelleher believed that you didn’t have to be boring to be successful, and enrolled everyone in his belief. In 1999 Herb underwent radiation treatment for prostate cancer. On a conference call with Wall Street's financial community, one of the analysts asked Herb if the radiation treatments impaired his ability to run the company in any way. Herb responded, "No, but I am very concerned about my uneven tan line!"

Below is an example of how much fun Herb had as CEO, and insisted on his employees having fun with him...

We are amidst unprecedented global disruption, with imminent economic hardship of uncertain proportions. The best chance for the majority of impacted businesses to survive, outside a sound innovative strategy based on agility and quick decision making, is to lean on the company culture and the trusty employees within it. If you take a page out of Herb Kelleher’s book, you may even just thrive your way onto the other side, and have some fun in the process.









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