Herb Kelleher's Contribution to Southwest Airlines

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The Case Study: Southwest Airline and Effective Leadership

The case study is about the southwestern airline, which has had effective leadership from its former CEO, thus contributing to its growth and success. The southwest airline leadership encompasses the four functions instituting the process of management. Leadership entails ensuring others are inspired by working hard so that they can accomplish crucial tasks. Boal and Hooijberg (2000), indicate that leaders that perform highly usually have a clear vision of the things they want to achieve and they have a willingness of sacrificing more than other individuals to get to their set goals. The essay will discuss Herb Kelleher’s leadership attributes, the contribution he has made to the southwest airlines, and how his leadership has been of a positive impact for the organization.


Kelleher was born in Camden, New Jersey on March 12th, 1931. He attended Haddon Heights High School and later proceeded to Wesleyan University where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Herb got his Juris Doctor from the New York University. He practiced law for some years and later he moved to Texas with a plan of starting his law firm. When he got to Texas he dropped his plan and instead started an aviation company. The concept was initiated together with Rollin King, his law firm client. They started the company in 1971 and named it Southwest after battling legal challenges set by their competitors who were not supporting their idea of establishing an airline. They did away with unnecessary services and they used secondary airports like Albany, Orange County, and Chicago-Midway. The organization grew from only four planes into being a leader in the airline sector. Herbert was the company’s legal counsel from 1966-1982. He became the president, chairman, and CEO from 1982 to 2001. He retired from his CEO and presidency position in 2001 while he was 70 years. At the moment, he remains to be the chairman of the board (Brooker, 2001). Herbert has been known to be a great corporate leader in the American business and society. The USA fortune magazine identified Kelleher as being one of the best CEOs (Labich, 1994). Under the leadership of Kelleher, Southwest airline managed to be the cost-efficient, productive, and consistently profitable carrier in the industry. The CEO’s leadership style is a motivation to many managers and upcoming leaders, and it helps in answering fundamental questions about the role of a leader in an organization (Blizzard, 2015).

Personal Attributes

The servant leadership is grounded on the principles of having a commitment to helping others in their duties, and it is a follower-centered (Mayer, Bardes, & Piccolo, 2008). Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines, had a combination of the servant and visionary leadership traits. While leading the company, he established a clear vision that was in line with Southwest’s core values, and he delivered the vision to the other workers while inspiring them to be governed by the vision as they execute their daily roles (Thomas, 2015). He ensured that all the leaders within the organization respect the staff and should also consider their opinions.

Kelleher's Leadership Style

Kelleher is an outrageous CEO who has been able to build a unique organization, and he has been dramatically successful in a competitive market segment (Herb n.d.). He has a leadership style that differs from other autocratic leaders that have been thriving in the business for many years. He does not exert command over his employees, but instead, the rules with them. He has a notion that leadership is a duty of every staff and not only for the upper-level management (Lee, 1995). Every employee has the potential of ascertaining situations and acting based on their individual decisions (Nisen, 2013).

Herbert Kelleher: A Charismatic Leader

Herbert Kelleher is a charismatic leader. A leader with a charismatic character motivates every individual to consider their company’s needs as being essential just like their personal needs. The charismatic leaders have the future vision, behave extraordinarily, and are highly confident (Northouse, 2010). Kelleher possesses all these abilities since his self-confidence is evident where he takes chances in changing southwestern’s face in the airline industry. His vision has been a reality in the past years, and it will continue to be functional in the coming days (Gibson & Blackwell, 1999). His playful and energetic character had drawn people into loving him.

Contributions to Southwest Airline

Kelleher has had immense contributions to the southwest airlines. He strives in creating relationships, partnerships, and alliances with the stakeholders which have had a profound effect on Southwest’s financial performance. Herb has built a literal network of trust with the numerous suppliers, labor unions, and the employees that the airline relies upon to operate efficiently. The CEO had an insight of standardizing in a single aircraft, and this was a decision that had not been previously heard (Bailey, 2008). The different airline had a wide range of aircraft to cater for the specific requiring of the flight locations and segments between which they flew. Through research grounded on the six sigma model of quality management, the airline, under the leadership of Kelleher, found out that by solely relying on the Boeing 737, they could reduce their costs by 60% or more within the first year of operation. The decision helped southwest airlines in turning around a jet for only 15 minutes, and this is an operation facet that has not been executed by the other competitors in the airline industry (Walter, 2017).

Kelleher's Visionary Leadership

Herb Kelleher had a vision of establishing an airline catering for the typical individual, and he was the first leader starting a single class of service and also not serving full meals while onboard but instead offering only snacks (Blizzard, 2015). The move helped in standardizing the costly processes that airlines incur, and it contributed to the company’s long-term profitability.

Kelleher's Servant Leadership

Servant leadership aims at helping the employees explore and use their talents as they accomplish their roles. The follower who is the employee is of higher value than the leader. Under Kelleher’s leadership, southwest came up with culture committed meeting, which includes employees from various functional levels and areas. The committee has a quarterly meeting where they brainstorm ideas on how they can maintain the airline’s image and spirit (Lancaster, 1999).

Kelleher’s Positive Leadership Impact on Southwest Airline

Despite the numerous challenges that are eminent in the airline industry, it is evident that Kelleher’s leadership skills have had a positive contribution to the company, thus enhancing its drastic growth. The CEO’s leadership has enabled Southwest to grow into the third largest in the globe by considering the number of passengers that it has carried. The company is a major passenger airline which has continuously been successful in making profits since 9/11 (Johnston, 2006). His leadership has been crucial since it has contributed to creating both, employee and customer, satisfaction, a vital aspect of the success of any business.

Drucker's Good Old-fashioned Leadership

All the managers have to be present where they have a talk with the employees with the aim of understanding their jobs. Kelleher’s leadership approach is in line with Drucker’s good old-fashioned leadership notion. This is represented through the definition and communication of a clear vision, being surrounded with talented people, viewing leadership as a responsibility, being consistent, keeping integrity to earn other’s trust, and not blaming others when things are not going well. The leadership style has made the employees efficient in their work, thus making the airline be loved by many people (Lieber, 1998). The employees have the freedom of expression and not putting on masks, and this helps to improve the staff retention (Lucier, 2004).

Kelleher: A Visionary Leader

Lastly, it is evident that Herb Kelleher is a visionary leader who has excellent focus on achieving the success of the company. He is a leader who is not alone but instead involves all the stakeholders. His leadership styles have enabled the southwest airline to grow into a most loved and highly profitable airline in the American history.


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October 30, 2023



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