We have been personally and professionally influenced by our longtime friendship and partnership with Southwest Airlines. Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett, as founders, collaborators, leaders and overall good-hearted people, have deeply influenced our thinking about leadership and life. And while writing NUTS!, we gained an appreciation for the power and impact of words. Herb was famous for countless iconic sayings that continue to influence behavior and drive performance.
Fear begets fear. These are unprecedented times and they call for grace, empathy and compassion. Perhaps these Herb-ism will guide you too:
“Be tough, but not mean.”
Anyone who ever competed against or worked with Herb Kelleher knew he was tough. Toughness and high expectations are what built an on-time airline with strict accountability and superior performance. People work their butts off at Southwest Airlines, but there is a difference between being tough and being mean. At Southwest, “mean” is dehumanizing and belittling. It will get you fired and rightly so.
Mean does not build a culture in which people WANT to work and CHOOSE to stay. Please don’t confuse being blunt or calling people out publicly as tough, it’s not, that is mean. Tough is truth in kindness, in appropriate timing and context and better done in private. Say what you mean, mean what you say, but do not say it mean. And if you’re just too busy for such cliches, then you do not deserve to be a leader.
“Give people license to be themselves.”
Many companies, while they’d never admit it, have the kind of up-tight cultures that say, “Leave your personality at home, we’ll issue you one when you come to work.” No one asks people to surrender their personality when they arrive at Southwest Airlines. Herb never believed, “you should have to come to work and assume a mask, be different from who you really are and look like you’re a bunch of little lead soldiers stamped out of a mold.” At Southwest, people have always been encouraged to express their individuality. If they want to tell jokes they can. If they want to be creative they can be. If they want to play pranks on their co-workers they can. Kelleher believed the work environment becomes more interesting when people have the freedom to be themselves. He also understood that a liberated spirit is essential to the kind of imagination and innovation Southwest seeks from its people. He said, “We give people license to be themselves. We give people the opportunity to be their own kinda crazy.”