Good Old Herb. The man, the legend.

Herbert David Kelleher passed away January 3, 2019 at the young age of 87. 

If you don’t know this name, you need to. An eccentric man who lived on cigarettes and Wild Turkey Bourbon, Herb was also the co-founder of Southwest Airlines and a man with the tenacity of a honey badger. Look into the early life of Southwest Airlines and you’ll see years tied up in court battles with giants of the airline industry helmed by Herb himself. He had a successful law practice that he kept up with until 1981 in spite of incorporating Southwest in 1967. For nearly 4 years Herb battled it out until Southwest was given the right to operate airplanes by the supreme court of Texas in December of 1970.

One of the first podcasts I listened to was the WP Carey School of Business, Speaker Series from 2006. The VP of Ground Operations spoke at that lecture of Herb’s leadership qualities. When he was talking to you, nothing else in the world existed. He knew people by name. He genuinely cared about them, and this is what permeated the Southwest culture. An airline built on LUV (their stock listing on the NYSE) and doing the impossible to win, like building their own ticketless systems from scratch out of parts from Radio Shack, when the rest of the industry purchased wildly expensive turn key solutions. Herb thrived on the edge of the impossible. 

That’s just the kind of guy Herb was. If anyone was going to turn an industry on it’s head, it was Herb. He didn’t get stressed out. What would drive any sane person to the brink was right in the normal operating wavelength for Herb. In his ‘How I Built This’ interview, he talked about how he never got stressed. I don’t know how he did it, but he was the right man to fight the giants of the time. I guess he just had a different way of thinking, which is made extremely evident when considering the trademark battle Southwest had with another airline that resulted in a public arm wrestling match between Herb and the other airline’s CEO. Yes that’s real. Check out “the Malice in Dallas” on YouTube.

In the book Nuts!, the authors dig into the history and culture of Southwest from inception to the time the book was written. The ‘How I Built This’ interview took place in 2016, and at that time the company posted 41 years of consecutive profits, a feat achieved by no other company in the airline industry. Herb liked to have his people think, believe the company is small, make those decisions, and we’ll grow. Think we’re big, act like we’re big, and we’ll lose. Herb said it better. Listen to the podcast. 

Herb would make my shortlist of people that I would like to sit down with; enjoy a pipe and some Wild Turkey with, and absorb information from. A wealth of knowledge and a way about him that few have. Herb was someone that likely had an impact on more people than he ever realized. 

If we as leaders have half the guts and integrity that Herb had, we’ll be ok. 

Cheers to you Herb.

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