Southwest Airlines and The Power of Teamwork


Every company strives for a cohesive work environment, where every team member is working towards a shared goal…but not every company manages to achieve this. One company that did was Southwest Airlines.

Few CEOs can claim to be as charismatic as Herb Kelleher, the founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines which was named the best company to work for in America in 1998 by Fortune magazine. Fewer still would arm-wrestle a rival for the use of a slogan, even one as brilliantly simple as ‘Just Plane Smart’.

With such a captivating man at the head of the company, it is not at all surprising that Southwest Airlines changed under his leadership. But, to change the whole culture of the company and – it could be argued – an entire industry, as Kelleher did, was a bold move.

Based on a simple philosophy, Kelleher implemented an ‘employee first’ approach to his company, arguing that:

‘Years ago, business gurus used to apply the business school conundrum to me: “Who comes first? Your shareholders, your employees, or your customers?” I said, “Well, that’s easy,” but my response was heresy at that time. I said employees come first and if employees are treated right, they treat the outside world right, the outside world uses the company’s product again, and that makes the shareholders happy. That really is the way that it works and it’s not a conundrum at all.’

And it is a philosophy that has certainly delivered results with Southwest, achieving their 40th consecutive year of profitability in 2012.

So how do they do it? It is actually a whole lot simpler than it seems; indeed, it comes down to three basic principles: a warrior’s spirit – the desire to work hard and be the best; a servant’s heart – the willingness to put others first and treat people with respect; and a fun-loving attitude – the ability to not take yourself too seriously (after all you may end up singing to a plane full of people

It is, therefore, hardly a surprise that Southwest has gained a reputation for not only low prices but also high quality customer care that offers something that most major companies do not – a sense of entertainment and fun. But Kelleher, and Southwest, have not gloated in their successful approach; indeed, in Kelleher’s own words: ‘We [the executives] are not the heroes. We supply the heroes, period. The heroes are out there.’

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