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“A no-nonsense approach to building your business through relationships.”

~ Jane Applegate, syndicated Los Angeles Times columnist

A Legendary Character…Of Very High Character

June 14th, 2012 by Bob Burg

Last post we looked at just one example of how Southwest Airlines has created a benevolent environment where team members embrace their responsibility to act in the best interests of the company itself. The result: profits year after year since forming over 40 years ago; this in an industry notorious for losing money.

Another of the Southwest stories I love — also from the book, Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, by Kevin & Jackie Freiberg (1996) — highlights how high character and integrity also brings with it a huge economic value.

Battles between airlines and their unions are commonplace, and the lack of trust between them has become almost proverbial. Yet, Southwest Airlines has historically had an excellent relationship with their union employees. How could that be?

Herb Kelleher and Bob BurgAs the Freiberg’s pointed out, it really came down to trust in their leadership. In this, case Southwest’s Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus, then CEO, Herb Kelleher.

To paraphrase the account in the book, former union representative, Rod Jones remembers arriving at Southwest just as the union was in the final phase of establishing a new contract with the company. There was one item the union wanted resolved before they would recommend the contract to those they represented. During an informal one-on-one conversation with the union president, John Schnobrich, Mr. Kelleher agreed and assured him it would be taken care of.

Mr. Jones recalls pressing Mr. Schnobrich for details as to exactly how it would be taken care of; did he have it in writing? When Schnobrich simply replied that “Herb told me it would be taken care of” Jones pressed harder. Schnobrich irritably countered, “You don’t need it in writing. When Herb Kelleher tells you something is going to be taken care of, it’s taken care of…Herb gave me his word on it, and that’s better than any piece of paper.”

And, according to Jones, “The issue was taken care of, exactly as Herb said it would be.”

Can you imagine that? Well, actually, those who know Herb Kelleher can absolutely imagine it.

There’s even more to this story, space not permitting. However, from the many similar stories in this book, other books and articles where Southwest is discussed as the standard for companies setting the right example, as well as the many Southwest employees and passengers I’ve spoken to, it can be reasonably said that the character of this company is a reflection of the character of the leadership.

Indeed, the brilliant and passionate Herb Kelleher is a free-spirited, on-the edge human being.

One could even call him a character. A legendary character

But he is, without question, a legendary character of very, very high character.




20 Responses to “A Legendary Character…Of Very High Character”
  1. Meredith Bell said at 8:31 am on

    I love this post, Bob, and especially: “a legendary character of very, very high character.” With headlines typically focused on those of low integrity, it’s always inspiring to hear about leaders of high integrity who impact thousands of lives in a positive way. Your post is a great reminder that being a person of principle is not just the right thing to do, it’s also SMART.

  2. Bob Burg said at 8:50 am on

    Meredith: Thank you, I LOVE your summation!

  3. Ken Abrahams said at 10:16 am on

    I miss the days when you could seal a deal with a handshake and a mans word was his bond. I wish there were more stories like this and less about litigation and unethical behavior. As always great stuff Bob.

  4. Bob Burg said at 10:32 am on

    Ken: Thank you. I appreciate that. So glad you enjoyed the post!

  5. Christie Ellis said at 11:03 am on

    It is such a great feeling to trust someone so much that when they say they will do something you know it is as good as done. Great post! Thank you for sharing an uplifting story this morning 🙂

  6. Kumar Gauraw said at 11:18 am on

    “You don’t need it in writing. When Herb Kelleher tells you something is going to be taken care of, it’s taken care of…Herb gave me his word on it, and that’s better than any piece of paper.”

    This is the heart of the post. Consider it done attitude requires very high level of self-image and character. Loved this post Bob. Accountability goes a long way. Thank you for this reminder.

  7. Bob Burg said at 11:22 am on

    Christie: It IS a great and reassuring feeling at that, isn’t it? Thank you for pointing that out!

  8. Bob Burg said at 11:23 am on

    Kumar: Thank you. Yes, indeed, it is the heart of the post. And, I think there are a lot more people like that than what most people believe.

  9. Steve White said at 12:28 pm on

    An example of character & integrity… whether it’s put in writing or not, what you say matters more than what you put in writing. Writing it down does not come from the heart and is not genuine. Honoring your word with action is best.

    Thanks for the post Bob.


  10. Bob Burg said at 12:54 pm on

    Steve: Thank you. Actually, I don’t think that writing something down necessarily detracts from it being genuine. In fact, the good thing about written agreements is that it’s a tangible reminder of expectations (sometimes, even with good intentions between parties, details can be forgotten). In this case, though, I saw that point as being that when someone gives their word on something, they – and the ones they’d given the word to – KNOW that it’s going to happen because that person said it would. Thank you for sharing with us.

  11. Bill Ellis said at 1:04 pm on

    What makes legends like Mr. Kelleher even greater is that their stories are worth repeating…the retelling spreads their value and the lessons inherent in the anecdote(s). It’s especially nice when done with the simple and genuine style you write in Bob.

    This concept has me thinking of a slight variation of Law 2 of the Go-Giver…so if you’ll allow it. “You’re ‘VALUE’ is determined by how many people you serve and how well you serve them.” Of course since value determines income…it isn’t truly that great of a variation. 🙂

  12. Bob Burg said at 1:32 pm on

    Bill: Thank you. They are definitely repeat-worthy, aren’t they? Interestingly, to this day we continue to hear “Southwest stories”, usually involving Herb and Colleen, and of course the consistently excellent and over-the-top service of those on the Southwest team. I have so much admiration for this company. And, thank you for your very kind comment about the writing style. Much appreciated!

  13. Molly Murphy said at 6:06 pm on

    Bob, Love your post and as The Monkee’s sang, “I’m a Believer”..whether as a parent to a child, boss to employee, friend to friend, co-worker to co-worker or in your example CEO to employees…. your word and your integrity matter. I am all for a world where more people follow the “Golden Rule” to treat others as you would like to be treated and are impeccable with their word. Thanks for sharing this example where integrity is rewarded in a situation where high consequences were at stake. Let’s hope that more people realize there are both intrinsic as well as extrinsic benefits to be realized from such honorable behavior in ALL situations.

  14. Bob Burg said at 6:13 pm on

    Molly: Great points throughout, Molly. Thank you!

  15. shloimy said at 6:48 pm on

    Thanks Bob for this post, it really is interesting that you posted on the topic of trust because I’m actually smack in the middle of reading Covey’s book “The Speed of Trust”, and as we can see in your illustration that trust has 2 parts to it Character and competence just like Covey writes in his book, Thanks again Bob for all that you do!

  16. Bob Burg said at 8:09 pm on

    Shloimy: Yes, “The Speed of Trust” (as well as Stephen’s latest, “Smart Trust”) is a terrific book. Indeed, character and competence are both so important. If a person has one but not the other the chances are not very likely they will inspire trust. Herb Kelleher, of course, certainly had/has both – high character and high competence. Enjoy the book!

  17. Linda Ryan said at 9:19 pm on

    Great post about a great story about a great man leading a great company…written by another great man. Thank you for sharing the greatness!

  18. Bob Burg said at 10:02 pm on

    Linda: Thank you. Very sweet!

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