SouthWest Airlines shows putting your people first makes good business sense

southwest herbThe annual UK Servant Leadership conference this month was an inspiring event. This movement is based around the idea, first promoted by Robert Greenleaf, that your purpose as a leader or manager is to serve your people.

One example of how this makes simple business sense is SouthWest Airlines, which is clear in its commitment to Servant Leadership. Now the third largest airline in the world, Its record of 40 consecutive years of profitability (unique in the US airline industry) is based on founder Herb Kelleher’s philosophy:

Put your employees first

“Your employees come first.  There’s no question about that. If your employees are satisfied and happy and inspired by what they are doing, then they make your customers happy and they come back.”

“We tell our people, ‘Don’t worry about profit. Think about customer service.’ Profit is a by-product of customer service.”

A philosophy like this is tested in hard times and SouthWest was notable for being the only US airline not to lay off staff after 9/11. They sold off planes instead.

Most profitable and one of the most unionised 

In the UK, BA has often faced confrontation with its staff and Ryanair is hostile to the very concept of trade unions. Yet SouthWest Airlines is 82% unionised, one of the highest levels of any airline in the US. Herb’s people-based philosophy extended to treating the unions as partners.

A US trade union web site notes that SouthWest has “the best relationship with its unions, and the highest customer satisfaction ratings”. In 2008 the Transport Workers Union made Herb an honorary lifetime member “in grateful appreciation for [his] unparalleled Leadership in creating a magnificent airline and a generation of Employees who love coming to work.”

That is a remarkable tribute to a remarkable businessman, and to the philosophy that lay behind his approach. Imagine how different large parts of British business would be if they had the same approach to their people and to the unions that represent them.

How would your organisation be different if, like SouthWest, the key focus of management was on making sure your people were “satisfied and happy and inspired”?


Note: My thanks to John Noble, the remarkable and dedicated organiser of the Greenleaf Centre in the UK, for his presentation, which included this information on SouthWest Airlines.

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